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Fire official’s objection may scuttle zoning change

Wednesday, December 2, 2015 by Jo Clifton

With the Austin Fire Department objecting to the zoning change, City Council decided to postpone a decision on downzoning a limited industrial property to allow vertical mixed-use retail and residences on an East Austin tract located next to a facility that stores large amounts of motor oil and lubricant.

Council members Pio Renteria and Greg Casar, who supported the zoning change, decided to move for postponement rather than lose the vote at Council’s zoning meeting last month. In addition to the objections from the Fire Department, Council heard from business owners and neighborhood representatives objecting to the idea of adding 252 condos and mixed-use retail on the property at 500 Shady Lane.

Council voted 10-0-1, with Council Member Delia Garza abstaining, to put off the matter until Feb. 11, 2016, the date of the next zoning meeting. Because there is a valid petition against the rezoning, the applicant would need nine votes in favor to achieve the requested change.

Fire Department Division Chief Chris Swenson, who oversees various fire prevention areas, told Council that the facility due west of the site stores between 150,000 and 200,000 gallons of motor oil and lubricant. Swenson indicated that these items fall into “the least flammable class of combustible liquids.” He said that “the likelihood of ignition is low, but the consequence of ignition is rather high.”

“If that stuff got going, it would be a really bad day for everyone in that general area,” Swenson said. In the event of a large oil spill with associated fire, he said, the department would recommend a one-half mile evacuation area.

Renteria asked Swenson whether he was aware if there were any other facilities in the area that handled oil. Swenson replied, “I believe there are some others, but once we determined that this area had such a large quantity, that pretty much made up our mind right there that we didn’t really need to go out any further to make up our minds as to what our recommendation would be,” which is to oppose the zoning change.

Alice Glasco, who represented Jimmy Nassour, the property owner, told the Austin Monitor on Tuesday that she is uncertain whether her client will continue to pursue the zoning change next year. She pointed out that the site and the one adjacent are the only industrial-zoned sites along the East Seventh Street corridor from Airport Boulevard to I-35. Glasco said the Fire Department was not aware of exactly what was being stored on the adjacent property until two days before the Council hearing, when Swenson went to that adjacent property to investigate.

Under the current zoning, Glasco said, permitted uses include hotel, motel, professional and medical office, and all retail uses that are allowed under regular retail zoning.

She told Council, “We can have a brewery. We can have a business or trade school. We can have auto repair and sales. We can have warehouse distribution with 18-wheelers, convenience storage, custom manufacturing and other uses. Our request is to downzone to … allow a mixed-use development with ground-floor retail and residential uses above.”

A staff report on the property indicated that the owner would offer 10 percent of the dwelling units at a price that would be affordable to families making 60 percent of median family income, estimated at about $30,000 to $40,000 a year for a family of two. Those rental units would be affordable for a 40-year period, according to Glasco.

In response to questions from various Council members, Swenson said the Fire Department does not track this type of combustible liquid. “So we don’t necessarily know about it. This case came up. We found out they had these qualities, so we investigated.” Swenson confirmed that the oil is being sold from the warehouse to different buyers. The problem is not when the oil is just sitting there, he said, but when there is “human action – loading, unloading, moving – that kind of thing,” he concluded.

Council Member Leslie Pool voiced the concerns of several of her colleagues when she indicated that she would like to find a way to move the proposed residential area farther away from the oil warehouse. She said she was looking for “the sweet spot … between the request for denial from staff” and a desire to support turning “that part of town into a more friendly housing area, which makes sense to me, and how you do that, while we’re recognizing the real safety concerns. … Right now I am coming down on the side of safety for the people who may not yet live there, which in this case would be staff’s position,” to deny the zoning. Council members Ora Houston and Don Zimmerman indicated that they would join her in opposing the zoning change.

In addition to the opposition from the Fire Department, Daniel Llanes, chair of the Red Bluff Neighborhood Association and coordinator of the Govalle Johnston Terrace neighborhood contact team, told Council, “We want housing. But we don’t want these huge exploitive rental developments. We recommended that … if they were going to do housing there, they would do less than 70 units and that there would be a broader spectrum of economics besides just 10 percent affordability.” He said he also did not want Cesar Chavez Street to end up looking like South Lamar Boulevard, with its huge blocky apartment complexes.

Renteria told his colleagues, in arguing in favor of changing the zoning, that “no matter where you go from Springdale to Shady Lane, you’re not going to be able to put anything there, because you’re going to be facing this hazardous industrial material, and they’re always going to have an ability to say, no, we’re going to keep it there. If they want industrial, they want this petroleum stop there in their neighborhood, like Daniel said, which I doubt because he mentioned the fact he wanted to see 70 units put in there, which basically just tells me that it wasn’t the housing that he was opposing. He was opposing it because he didn’t like the design of the building.

“But you know that’s what we’re going to be facing,” Renteria continued. “You know, I worked all my life there in East Austin to try to get these industrial areas to move.” He referred to his and others’ past efforts to get Arnold Oil to leave East Austin, which was finally successful when the owner realized that he could make more money by moving than by staying.

It appears unlikely that the adjacent property owner will decide to relocate his business within the next couple of months, so Council will have the same problem to consider when the item returns in February.

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