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Commissioners OK commercial zoning in East Austin

Wednesday, May 20, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Acknowledging neighborhood support and ties to the community, Planning Commissioners last week recommended a compromised rezoning designation for an East Austin home. The switch will allow commercial use of the property.

The commissioners agreed only after expressing concern that allowing one resident the zoning to have office space on the street would embolden developers and those with commercial interests to further inundate this part of East Austin.

With Commissioners Brian Roark and Nuria Zaragoza opposing, members voted to grant Limited Office-Mixed Use (LO-MU) zoning and change the Future Land Use Map to Mixed Use at 2901 E. Fifth St. But this decision was not reached easily; it followed the commissioners’ rejection of the owner’s request to change the zoning to Community Commercial (GR). Chair Danette Chimenti and Vice Chair Stephen Oliver were absent.

Commissioner Jean Stevens said she would not support the more intense GR zoning because commercial properties had already flooded the area. City staff confirmed that while the property is on an East Austin block zoned for residential use, it is surrounded by commercial zoning.

Stevens instead supported a more limited version. “There is enough commercial use around there to support a LO-MU, and I highly encourage the MU to be very pronounced in this case,” she said. “I would like to see you live on the property, I would like to see your grandchildren come live with you or play or go to school from your house.”

“The logic is very clear what’s going to happen,” said ex officio member Jeff Jack, referring to a map where a significant portion of the neighborhood was colored yellow, to indicate commercial property. “I hope the neighborhood understands that when they have those zoning cases come up in the future, they know where they came from.”

Zaragoza said she opposed allowing commercial property on the block because it abuts an elementary school.

Commissioner James Shieh disagreed. “There are successful schools that are right next to commercial stuff — right across from grocery stores, from offices, from quite a few things,” Shieh said. “It’s really the neighborhood that’s going to continue to support the school. It’s not about what’s right next to it.”

Zaragoza explained that she was concerned that rezoning homes from residential to commercial uses could contribute to under-enrollment in central city schools. “To me, depleting the stock that could potentially house families (within) walking distance — a pedestrian crossing away — from a school, to me is not supporting our neighborhood schools,” said Zaragoza.

In the end, several commissioners said that if the applicant had been someone new to the neighborhood, it’s likely that no new zoning permit would have passed.

“I think we might be doing this for this applicant because she is such a nice woman and has ties to the community,” said Zaragoza.

Roark agreed. “I get the feeling that if someone had come in and bought that property and was new to the neighborhood, and then they were seeking the same zoning change with no plan whatsoever, the neighborhood would be up in arms about it,” he said.

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