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Mt. Zion zoning turns a corner

Friday, September 18, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

After months of struggle and complications, it looks as though there may be compromise on the horizon for East Austin’s Greater Mt. Zion Baptist Church.

The new tack will have to go through the normal approval process in the future, but at their last meeting, Planning Commissioners voted unanimously to initiate zoning for 1801 and 1809 Pennsylvania Ave. and 1170 Chicon St.

Commissioner Trinity White said she was excited about the compromise that seemed to be impending.

“I’m so grateful to the church and to the neighborhood for coming together and finding a way to try to make this work and for the conversation that you all have had. I know it hasn’t been easy,” said White.

Anticipating a move in the future, the East Austin church first sought in May to remove a restrictive covenant on 1801 Pennsylvania Ave. Church leaders explained that the covenant, which limited land use to religious assembly only, would make it hard to sell the property. At the time, church leaders and city staff believed that, even if the restrictive covenant was removed, other restrictions would limit development to civic uses. This was, however, a mistake, and removing the restrictive covenant left the base zoning – General Office – on the tract.

Given the new information, the Planning Commission reversed an earlier decision to recommend removing the restrictive covenant. The new information, and commission action, also persuaded the church to change its strategy. Henry Gilmore, who has been speaking on behalf of the church, explained that after that denial, “the church went back and did some thinking.”

Gilmore said that, initially, the church hoped to steer clear of changing the zoning on the land in an effort to keep things simple. With that ship long having sailed, the church has been working with the neighborhood on a new plan.

Gilmore explained that, taking into account comments from commissioners and the neighborhood, the church was now seeking Multifamily-4 zoning with Multifamily-1 uses at 1801 and 1809 Pennsylvania Ave. and 1170 Chicon St., with no added limit on the number of units allowed. Though some neighbors may like to see a cap on how many units can be built, that is a discussion that will take place in the future.

In addition, the church is not seeking an upzoning for the tract at 1800 Pennsylvania Ave. Gilmore said that even though everyone believed the tract was zoned GO for 30 years, they are seeking an amendment of the Future Land Use Map that will change the tract to single-family residential on the map.

“If you step back, if this plan gets effectuated, the north side will be residential, the south side will be residential,” said Gilmore. “That is what the neighborhood has been fighting for, and there will be certainty that these properties will be developed residentially, as opposed to … some sort of commercial use. It’s a compromise that will allow us to move forward.”

Of course, the rezoning hinges on removal of the restrictive covenant, which, because of the many twists and turns involved in the case, is now on its own separate path and headed to City Council. Planning and Zoning Department city planner Heather Chaffin told commissioners that it remained unclear what the timing of the restrictive covenant and rezoning would be, in terms of when the issues would go before Council.

Though they are connected, Chaffin said she wasn’t sure how much control she or the commission had over their scheduling.

“They’ve become a little disjointed, and it’s hard to tie them together,” said Chaffin, who added that she would pass along to her supervisors the wish to keep the two items together at Council.

This post has been corrected.

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