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Planning Commission punts controversial Thornton Road project to Council

Thursday, January 14, 2016 by Jack Craver

Neighborhood activists appeared to score a partial victory Tuesday when the Planning Commission voted to forward a controversial proposal for a major development on Thornton Road to City Council without a recommendation.

Although a majority of commissioners present voted to deny staff’s recommendation to approve the project, the panel fell one vote short of the six needed to approve a motion.

Commissioners Fayez Kazi, Tom Nuckols, Patricia Seeger, Nuria Zaragoza and Trinity White supported the recommendation to reject the project, while commissioners Angela Pineyro De Hoyos, Jeffrey Thompson and Michael Wilson voted in opposition and Commissioner Jose Vela III abstained. Two present commissioners, James Shieh and James Schissler, recused themselves from the case.

The announcement that the motion had failed elicited a round of applause from a number of red-clad neighborhood activists in the audience who mistakenly believed the action meant the project had been squashed.

After a motion by Wilson to postpone discussion of the project failed, the commission voted 8-1 to send the proposal to Council without a recommendation, with only Kazi dissenting.

Members of the South Lamar Neighborhood Association and others opposed to the project decried the proposal as out of character with the neighborhood and a threat to many of the arts-oriented businesses the area is known for.

“Don’t destroy the very culture that makes Austin great,” said James Mays, the director of the nearby Band Aid School of Music, who came equipped with a petition that he said included more than 600 signatures in opposition to the project.

“If this board believes that residential units should displace these small businesses, then this board should use good planning principles and look at the surrounding properties, where nothing exceeds the density of MF-2,” said Bryan King, of the South Lamar Neighborhood Association. “Certainly not CS-V-MU and certainly not CS-MU.”

Pineyro De Hoyos listed a number of reasons she liked the project, including the design and the infrastructural improvements offered by the developer, but suggested that the complaints from the neighbors gave her pause. However, she ultimately voted to recommend the project.

Vela similarly voiced support for increased housing stock in the area but noted that the traffic implications of the project were “legitimate concerns.”

Many of the commissioners agreed that the project was far too dense for the area.

“To me it’s just out of place with other nearby uses and development,” said Zaragoza.

Seeger said that she may have been able to support the project if it were “a quarter or a third less dense.”

The proposed development, sought by Oden Hughes LLC, would add 212 residential units to a 3.56-acre plot of land at 2303-2311 Thornton Road, 10 percent of which would be reserved for families making 60 percent of the area median income. The property is currently zoned for commercial services (CS); the developer has requested a zoning change to allow for vertical, mixed use (CS-MU-V) in addition to commercial uses.

City staff stopped short of a full recommendation of the requested changes, instead recommending a smaller project with only 156 residential units, reasoning that “vertical” zoning, which allows for more density, is inappropriate for Thornton Road because it is not a core transit corridor.

Staff also recommended that the developer make a number of infrastructural changes to accommodate the anticipated increase in vehicular and foot traffic, including widening the section of Thornton Road that is within 200 feet of Oltorf Street and constructing a sidewalk between the property and West Oltorf Street.

David Hartman, an attorney for Oden Hughes, suggested that the developers were open to pursuing staff’s recommendation but noted that affordable units wouldn’t be included as part of the smaller project. He also noted that the company had proposed funding infrastructure improvements beyond what the city determined it was obliged to fund, including a traffic signal at Thornton and Oltorf.

“We’ve worked long and hard over the last several months and come up with a reasonable proposal,” he said.

Hartman also emphasized the dialogue the company had undertaken with neighbors and its ties to the community. “Oden Hughes is from here, we’re homegrown,” he said.

After realizing there weren’t enough votes for or against the project to make a recommendation to Council, some commissioners discussed postponing the case to allow Chair Stephen Oliver, who was absent, to vote on the project.

Others suggested that postponing projects to allow for absent members to vote would set a dangerous precedent. Pineyro De Hoyos reasoned that sending the proposal to Council without a recommendation would appropriately convey the commission’s mixed feelings.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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