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Council shoots down Thornton Road Studios rezoning

Monday, March 7, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

A group of artists, musicians and small business owners in South Austin was granted a stay of execution related to its work spaces last Thursday night, when City Council denied a zoning change that would have transformed the property into a new mixed-use development.

Jimmy Nassour was seeking a zoning change from Commercial Services (CS) to Commercial Services-Vertical Mixed Use (CS-MU-V) for 3.56 acres of land at 2303 and 2309 Thornton Road in South Austin. Though staff was recommending a zoning change to Mixed Use (without the “vertical” component and with some added restrictions), Council struck it down in a decisive vote of 10-1, with Council Member Don Zimmerman voting in opposition.

Currently, the property is home to Thornton Road Studios, which holds a variety of art studios, recording studios and music schools, among other commercial businesses. Given the almost unanimous support for the music and cultural omnibus that had passed earlier in the day, along with ongoing concerns that Austin is becoming unaffordable for the city’s creative class, Council’s vote to deny the zoning that would allow for a mixed-use residential project was hardly a surprise.

Council Member Delia Garza expressed hope that the landlord would consider expanding the studios instead.

“I do believe that adding that housing supply will help some of our lower-income families,” said Garza. “(But) I don’t think I’ll ever be able to apply a blanket policy, because there’s such unique things about every single case. So in light of what we did earlier, and in light of being the daughter of an artist, I think this is – for me, it’s a symbolic vote. … This doesn’t necessarily save these studios, but I think it sends a great message.”

In addition to the many artists who showed up to oppose the zoning change, the project has a petition against it with enough signatures (22 percent of people within the area, as of Thursday) to be considered valid. As such, approval of the zoning change would have required a vote by a supermajority (nine members) of Council.

David Hartman, who spoke on behalf of the developer, explained that the developer hoped to build a “wedding cake” style project, which would step up in height away from the road, from three stories to five stories at its tallest. He explained that, in practice, the zoning change would be a “significant downzoning of the property” because the plans call for less building cover, impervious cover and floor-to-area ratio than currently permitted.

However, most of the arguments against the project weren’t about what was going to be built but what could be lost.

Band Aid School of Music Director James Mays spoke on behalf of “the 50 artists, two art schools, three music schools and a number of other small businesses whose success will be severely damaged, if not destroyed, by this proposal.”

“The Thornton art and music studios has been a visionary force responsible for cultivating and supporting Austin’s creative culture and legacy in South Austin for over 30 years,” said Mays. “If you’ve ever attended a film festival, South by Southwest, ACL fest, an arts festival like the WEST tour, walked down Sixth Street or visited City Hall, you’ve been affected by the work of the businesses on Thornton Road that will be displaced by the proposed zoning change.”

Mays added, “There’s a reason why people flood to Austin for music. There’s a reason why billions of dollars flow into our economy from these events. It’s because over the past 40 years, we’ve been committed to supporting music, art and culture in Austin. One of your commitments that you made today is to preserve existing spaces for not only musicians but also creative industries. And you don’t even have to do anything. You don’t have to go out and find the spaces to do that. You don’t have to have a study. You can start it right now by just simply rejecting this proposal.”

In addition, members of the South Lamar Neighborhood Association questioned whether traffic and drainage infrastructure could handle the proposed development. Though the developer said it could, the neighborhood association nonetheless opposed the rezoning. Neighbors also objected to a vertical mixed-use development on a road other than a core transit corridor. Though the property is located just south of Oltorf Road, opponents of the proposal spoke about the area’s persistent rural character, which has endured despite nearby development.

The property in question is zoned for commercial development, but it is surrounded by residential zoning. When it was annexed by the city in the 1960s, there was a warehouse on the property that was then considered “legal nonconforming.” In 1967, the owner was granted commercial zoning because that nonconforming status was making it hard to sell the property, though neighbors explaining that history on Thursday categorized the 1967 zoning change as a decision that was made reluctantly.

“As so often happens in zoning, the dominoes fell, and this is what we’re left with,” said resident Hilary Dyer, who explained that there were a handful of properties in the neighborhood that had the same incongruous commercial zoning.

“Throughout all the zoning cases we’ve seen over the last 55 years, throughout the entire 55-year history, the discussions have remained exactly the same. … Sometimes the zoning was denied. Sometimes it was granted. Sometimes it was granted at a lower density,” Dyer continued. “But nevertheless, in each case, (the) Planning Commission and councils sought to deal with the problems by limiting the density. What we saw in the past is exactly what our concern is today for the future.”

Mayor Steve Adler voted against the zoning with the explanation that it was not the appropriate use for the area. He said that he favored increased density in the city, but not indiscriminately. “I don’t think we can pick up enough density in the interior of the neighborhoods to be worth the pain and the blood that would be on the floor if we fought that battle,” he said.

This story has been edited after publication to remove a paragraph that was repeated twice.

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