Tuesday, July 14, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Foundation Communities project back on track after BoA delay

An attempt to thwart construction of Foundation Communities’ Bluebonnet Studios fell flat at the Board of Adjustment on Monday night.

Michael Sullivan, who owns the property adjacent to the Bluebonnet Studios site, asked the board to reconsider two city staff code interpretations. The first classified the Bluebonnet Studios at 2301 South Lamar as “congregate living.” Contrary to this interpretation, Sullivan argued that the affordable housing project is, in fact, “multifamily.” Sullivan also disagreed with a plan to allow the studios’ dumpsters to be moved into the right-of-way once a week for collection.

Board members voted unanimously to uphold staff’s interpretation, with Vice Chair Melissa Hawthorne recused.

“I feel like I’m being crowded into an arranged marriage with this project for the rest of my life,” said Sullivan. “This is just a mess, but it could be fixable, and it could be a good affordable housing project.”

City planner Wendy Rhodes explained that over one year ago, the project was designated as a “congregate living” use but was identified as “multifamily” on a few forms.

Development Services Department Assistant Director George Adams said that the dumpsters are about 90 feet from the nearest property, which is zoned single-family (SF-3). Under code, the dumpsters cannot be located closer than 20 feet. Adams further explained an administrative waiver that allows the owner to use the right-of-way for collection and return the dumpsters to their permanent location immediately. Adams said that solution was “not unique” and had been applied to similarly sized, as well as bigger, projects.

“I think this is a waste of your time, pun intended,” said Foundation Community Executive Director Walter Moreau. “Honestly, he’s complained about everything we are doing: fence, noise, color of the fence, hours of operation, traffic – and he found two issues that stuck, that he had a right to appeal to City Hall.

“I think his real issue is he doesn’t want us to be there,” said Moreau.

Sullivan did not hide his distaste for the project, but he said it was not because he opposed affordable housing.

“I’m not an opponent of affordable housing, and at the end of this meeting, I don’t want anybody to think that I’m an opponent of affordable housing,” said Sullivan. “The only thing that I’m opposed to is this project, which is not to scale, and falsely advertised as congregate living.”

Sullivan said it was unreasonable to have the tenants’ trash “in the street” once a week. (Moreau later explained that this categorization was false, and the dumpsters would be moved into the driveway, not the street, if necessary.)

“It’s a simple process to go back and redesign a place where those dumpsters can be off the street like they ought to be off the street,” said Sullivan.

Sullivan said that the reason the project was categorized as congregate living was “for density.” He said he would support the project if it were a more reasonable density, but 155 units per acre was “unreasonable” and “fantasy.”

“You can call it congregate living – it’s an apartment house. It functions as an apartment house,” said Sullivan.

Board Member Melissa Neslund helped clarify that the density was allowed through the CS-V zoning. That designation allows unlimited density when a certain number of units are affordable. In this case, all of the units are affordable.

According to city code, congregate living use is the “use of a site for the provision of 24-hour supervision and assisted living for more than 15 residents not needing regular medical attention. This use includes personal care homes for the physically impaired, mentally retarded, developmentally disabled, or persons 60 years of age or older, basic child care homes, maternity homes, and emergency shelters for victims of crime, abuse, or neglect.”

Moreau said that Bluebonnet Studios met that criteria on more than one count. He explained that the low-income studios would have 24-hour staffing for supervision, as well as support services on site. He said that about 20 percent of tenants would likely be formerly homeless veterans, and the model was designed to serve people with physical impairments, mental health and developmental delays; seniors; and victims of crime, abuse or neglect.

The South Lamar Neighborhood Association voted overwhelmingly to support the project 18 months ago. SLNA President Mario Champion wrote a letter affirming that this was true and reiterating support for the project.

Sullivan originally requested that the case be postponed until after the neighborhood association’s next meeting, which will take place on Aug. 20. Because of the appeal, construction was stopped on the project last week pending the public hearing. Moreau explained that the suspension of construction cost the project “several thousand dollars a day” and complicated the construction schedule.

To date, the city has invested more than $3 million in the project, private donors have contributed more than $2 million, and Bluebonnet Studios has received $9 million in federal tax credits.

Image of Bluebonnet Studios courtesy of Foundation Communities. 

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Board of Adjustment: The city's Board of Adjustment is a quasi-judicial body that decides on variances, special exceptions and can issue interpretations of code.

Foundation Communities: Austin-based nonprofit focused on affordable housing issues and construction.

South Lamar Neighborhood Association: Founded in January 2001, SLNA represents the area bounded by Oltorf on the north, the Missouri-Pacific Railroad on the east, Ben White Boulevard on the south, and South Lamar and Manchaca Roads on the west.

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