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Zoning commission OKs northwest SMART homes

Tuesday, December 22, 2015 by Jack Craver

A speech by a neighbor denouncing a proposed SMART housing complex as dangerous and poorly planned didn’t stop the Zoning and Platting Commission from unanimously approving it at its meeting last Tuesday.

The site plan for a 120-unit apartment complex at 11015 and 11017 Four Points Drive was requested by Foundation Communities, a nonprofit that owns and operates 16 affordable housing communities in Austin and several in North Texas. City Council already approved the project in February, along with a $1.9 million forgivable loan, over the objections of neighbors who complained about the increased traffic burden it would bring. The Zoning and Platting Commission was still required to approve the site plan because it is located along a “Hill Country Roadway,” making it subject to certain development criteria.

Despite their stated enthusiasm for affordable housing west of MoPac, commissioners acknowledged the concerns voiced by Franklin Dennison, a nearby resident who said that the project was not in line with the definition of SMART, an acronym that stands for “safe, mixed-income, accessible, reasonably priced and transit-oriented.”

According to Dennison, the sheer size of the 120-unit complex facilitates crime. He highlighted studies on the issue of “defensible space” and “crime prevention through environmental design” that have found that affordable housing developments should favor more individual space and fewer shared, public spaces that are vulnerable to loitering or gang activity.

Dennison similarly argued that the project’s plan to have dumpsters for each 24-unit building would attract rats and cockroaches.

“I have no objection to an affordable-income facility of the nature of this one,” he said. “I just simply think that the scope and, more particularly, the design would have a deleterious impact for the residents, not to even mention the surrounding community.”

Commission Vice Chair Jackie Goodman agreed that dumpsters are an issue and encouraged developers to find ways to address the associated problems, but she said that expecting garbage cans for every unit in an apartment complex might not be realistic. However, Sunshine Mathon, the design and development director for Foundation Communities, clarified that dumpsters are required for multifamily developments.

One objection from Dennison that resonated with commissioners related to the lack of public transit options for future residents of the development. Michael Simmons-Smith, of the Planning and Zoning Department, tried to address their concerns by citing recently stated plans from Capital Metro to extend a bus route to the area.

But Goodman posed a simple question that Simmons-Smith couldn’t answer: “When?”

“I did not see a specific date,” he said, referring to a letter he’d seen from the transit agency. “They just indicated in their future plans that a future route is documented. I wish I could conclusively answer that, but I cannot.”

“Well, they have a lot of those,” said Goodman.

Walter Moreau, executive director of Foundation Communities, noted that the housing complex wouldn’t be ready for two years and that he believed the bus route was slated to come into the area in the next two to three years. “We absolutely will keep working on Cap Metro to expand and improve service there,” he added.

In the meantime, the proximity of a number of low- or moderate-wage employers, including HEB, Target, Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Lowes, make the location ideal for those seeking affordable housing near their work, Moreau explained.

“It’s not an ideally connected transportation location, but it does really serve lower-income families that work very close by,” he said. Commission Chair Gabriel Rojas, acknowledging the importance of accessible public transit, said that matching populations with transportation was something of a “chicken or the egg” conundrum.

“Maybe when the people need the service, the service will come to them, but at least the jobs are there,” he said.

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