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Worried neighbors win over commissioners in East Austin zoning case

Monday, July 6, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Last week, neighbors stayed past midnight at the Planning Commission to protest a zoning change on “Death Hill,” as it’s locally known. Their concerns about safety, traffic and gentrification in that area of East Austin resonated with commissioners, who overwhelmingly voted to deny the change.

Polis Properties LLC is seeking a zoning change for its property at 5306 Samuel Huston Ave. The developer is seeking a change from SF-3 to SF-6, which would allow it to build 21 units on the 2.93-acre flag lot, which has 50 feet of frontage on Samuel Huston Avenue.

Commissioners voted 6-1 to deny the zoning change, with Commissioner Stephen Oliver voting in opposition and commissioners Brian Roark and James Shieh absent.

Commissioner James Nortey said that normally he would support this kind of zoning case because of the need for more housing in the city. In this instance, however, he said the surrounding land use and traffic raised concerns. He said that, regardless of a unit cap, more intense zoning in the middle of a neighborhood would “send a signal to the entire world (that) this neighborhood is ripe for zoning.”

Candace Craig spoke on behalf of Polis Properties. She explained that the main advantage of SF-6 zoning is that it would allow Polis to develop the lot with a site plan instead of through a subdivision process. The zoning change would also allow it to build five more units, which Craig said would be an increase of 55 trips per day.

A change to SF-6 zoning would also allow the developer to build units around a common driveway and common open space instead of having individually “flagged” residences with driveways to each property, explained Chris Peterson with Polis Properties.

“The other land plan really makes for a much better neighborhood,” said Peterson, who called SF-3 an “outdated zoning.”

Jessica Warden owns the house adjacent to the property up for rezoning, and she asked commissioners to retain the current zoning on the property. She said that, since moving in nine months ago, she had picked up “one to two dead cats every month.”

Also during that time, a car had crashed through Warden’s fence and into her yard, and another had crashed in front of her house. Additionally, she told commissioners that the street was backed up with traffic, and she was concerned about more being added from the development.

“There is no way to get out in the morning. There is no way to get in at night. There are animals splayed all over the road. There are car accidents at least weekly. The speed there is unbelievable,” said Warden. “When they say ‘just a few units,’ that’s a lot to this small neighborhood. … I don’t think it’s connectivity. I think it’s chaos.”

Resident Heather McCord said that the developer had not told the neighborhood what was going on through the process, nor had it worked on a compromise. Neighbors have a petition against the zoning change, but it had not yet been validated.

“When (the developer) bought this property, he knew it was weird. He knew it was a weird shape,” said McCord. “That was a risk that he took, and I don’t understand why the neighborhood has to suffer just so he can get his commercial interests vested. … I’m sure he’ll probably be sitting in his West Austin home, counting his money and not worrying about the traffic coming down Samuel Huston.”

Craig said that after the previous hearing about the case, the developer contacted the Austin Transportation Department to verify neighborhood claims that speeding was rampant on Samuel Huston Avenue. A speed study found that there “isn’t an egregious amount of speeding,” she said, and the city did not recommend the installation of traffic-calming devices. Craig also dismissed concerns that there were not adequate sidewalks.

Truman Heights Neighborhood Association President Doris Arnold elaborated on traffic concerns, and explained that the streets in the neighborhood are dangerous and overcrowded. She also said that drawings of the proposed homes did not fit the neighborhood, and would loom over the existing houses.

“They are going to be looking down all over us. It is another neighborhood moving in on a neighborhood – that’s exactly what it is,” said Arnold.

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