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Crowd turns out to decry One Two East project

Friday, February 19, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

Anyone who has spent time on the near east side of Austin in the past few months has probably seen the (literal) signs that neighbors have been gearing up for a fight over development plans for the CVS shopping center at East 11th Street, along the I-35 Frontage Road. Last Tuesday, that fight came to the Planning Commission, where a huge crowd came early to say its piece about One Two East.

More than three hours after the discussion began, commissioners voted to recommend the zoning change developers were seeking – with some significant conditions.

JH West 12th Street Partners Ltd. is seeking a zoning change that will allow it to build up to 185 feet in height, with a floor-to-area ratio of 5:1. Currently, the zoning on the two tracts allows for 150 and 100 feet in height and 3:75 to 1 FAR.

A chart from the Drenner Group showed that without increased entitlements, developers could build about 456,000 square feet, which – with height limited to 150 feet – would allow for 465 apartment units. With an increase to 185 feet in height, they propose 487 units, a senior living facility, a pharmacy and a 47,000-square-foot grocery store – 604,118 square feet in total.

Commissioners voted 7-3-1 for a middle ground that would grant the zoning change but limit height to 150 feet on one tract while allowing 185 feet on the other tract. They also limited the construction facing Branch Street to town homes, stipulated that half of the residential units be for senior citizens and conditioned site-plan approval on development of a grocery store and pharmacy. In addition, developers will create 17 affordable units and contribute $250,000 to affordable housing.

Commissioners Patricia Seeger, Trinity White and Nuria Zaragoza opposed, Commissioner Angela Pineyro De Hoyos abstained and Commissioner Jeffrey Thompson was absent.

Seeger said she was conflicted. “We want additional housing. And we do want grocery stores spread throughout our city. … Yes, it would be great to have that grocery store. It would be really great to have the facade of that second building. But at what cost?”

Seeger pointed out that, if built as proposed, there would be no transition from the 185-foot-tall project to the 35-foot-tall houses of the neighborhood behind. (For context, the apartment complex built just across the street on Eleventh Street fairly recently is about 60 feet in height.)

One neighbor, Mireles Leticia, explained that all of the homeowners in the Juniper-Olive Community Land Trust Program had signed a petition against the zoning change. Though they are within 200 feet of the project, their signatures did not count because they do not own the land underneath their homes, and the city will not allow them the right to sign the petition. A valid petition would force the project to be approved by a supermajority of City Council – or nine votes – but in order to take effect, 20 percent of owners within 200 feet must sign.

A roomful of neighbors concerned about traffic, nearby trees, the large scale of the project and its impact on the nearby area both in a physical and cultural sense showed up to the meeting.

Robertson Hill Neighborhood Association President Janice Friesen spoke on behalf of her neighborhood association and said the project would throw parts of her neighborhood into yearlong shade. She told the commission that a 2015 report from the city showed that in the neighborhood’s census tract, the median family income in the area was about $32,000 a year, with a poverty rate of about 35 percent.

“This is the biggest gentrification project East Austin has ever seen, and we will do what we can to oppose it,” she said. “Nothing this project offers justifies the impact that it will have on affordability or quality of life for homeowners or renters.”

Speakers explained that the zoning change was also opposed by the OCEAN (Central East Austin) neighborhood planning team, the Austin Revitalization Authority, the African American Cultural Heritage District and the Swede Hill Neighborhood Association, among other organizations.

Alex Fleming, a resident of the Robertson Hill neighborhood, spoke in favor of the development, with the understanding that “change is inevitable.” He said he would rather see the amenities offered by this project than another development.

“We as east-siders can either choose to fight this change, or we can rally our voices together to embrace these changes to ensure positive impacts are implemented within our neighborhood,” said Fleming. “This site will be developed whether or not the neighbors agree.”

Drenner Group’s Steve Drenner stressed the “superior design” that would be available with increased entitlements, including the allowance of 185-foot-tall buildings. Drenner explained that his mock-ups of what could be built with and without entitlements were an effort to present neighbors with a “clear choice” that they had spent a long time on.

“Frankly, it was a close call in terms of how to move forward,” he said, “but we decided it was worth the process because it was such a better project.”

Drenner, referring to the difference in allowed height, continued, “It’s an important 35 feet. It’s the 35 feet that delivers a mixed-use project. It’s the 35 feet that delivers a grocery store and keeps the pharmacy on this site. It’s the 35 feet that delivers a senior living component on this site. It’s the 35 feet that delivers 100 permanent jobs from this project. It’s the 35 feet that changes the view on the eastern edge from an exposed parking garage to a grocery store and apartments on the ground floor. And it’s the 35 feet that brings 17 more affordable units and a $250,000 contribution toward affordable housing. It’s the 35 feet that greatly enhances the project … and makes it something that will become part of the fabric of the area.

“Clearly, either project is a big project,” Drenner concluded.

Currently, the case is scheduled to go before Council in April. Council Member Ora Houston, who represents District 1, where the project is located, made her feelings clear on the City Council Message Board when a member of her staff requested the postponement last week.

Houston’s post ends with, “This project will set a precedent for further development on the east side of the access road. It will be in fact a vertical barrier that will marginalize and negate the neighborhoods and communities that exist today in central east Austin.”

Rendering courtesy of the city of Austin

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