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One Two East gets Council preview

Wednesday, April 13, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

The battle over One Two East has been brewing on the east side for months. On Thursday, it will finally land at City Council, and this week’s Council work session offered a glimpse of what might be to come.

The property that spans 1109, 1105 and 1107 on the I-35 Frontage Road is home to CVS Pharmacy and, formerly, Mexitas restaurant. It is a property familiar to Council Member Pio Renteria, who was part of the process that ultimately determined the site could be developed up to 150 feet in height. Developer JH West 12th Street Partners Ltd. is now seeking a zoning change that will allow it to be built 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. And the developer is facing galvanized neighborhood opposition in the doing.

“Even my priest damned this project,” said Renteria. “Nowhere in East Austin has there been any kind of development east of I-35 that size at all – not even 100 feet. I was very shocked to hear they wanted 185. I thought, ‘Wow, how did you even get 150 feet? I thought we fought you on that in the ’90s,’ but I guess somehow it went ahead and got approved.”

Council Member Ora Houston pulled the item for discussion and made no secret about her opinion on the case, which is within her District 1. She told her colleagues that she had helped negotiate the height request down to 185 feet, with less floor-to-area ratio than the developer originally requested, but said that didn’t address the appropriateness or scale of the development overall. She joked that the case was going to be chapter two in her new book, “Why negotiating Land Development Codes Doesn’t Work” or, alternately, “David vs. Goliath.”

Houston pressed Planning and Zoning Department Director Greg Guernsey on how, exactly, the proposed development would not be detrimental to the neighborhood or its character. In response, Guernsey cited the difference in elevation between the lot and nearby residences and explained that, even without expanding on its current entitlements, it would be one of the tallest structures on the east side. The property to the south of the tract, however, would be allowed 220 feet in building height under the Neighborhood Conservation Combining District.

In exchange for the increased development entitlements it is seeking, the developer has agreed to commit to building a grocery store and pharmacy as well as to several other concessions, such as 17 affordable units, a $250,000 contribution toward retaining residents and construction of a senior living facility.

The promise of a grocery story and pharmacy, said Houston, is not as critical as the height and the impact that 185 feet may have on the quality of life in the neighborhood. She pointed out that there were several nearby grocery stores, and a new store on the medical school campus would soon be within walking distance, on 15th Street. Houston said she didn’t consider the area a food desert.

Council Member Delia Garza expanded on the topic, saying, “A grocery store is often offered as a carrot in East Austin, and then when the final plans happen, they can’t make a grocery store happen. It happened at Saltillo – the community came out very strong (in favor of) a grocery store. And now there is not going to be a grocery store, because they couldn’t make the numbers work.”

Guernsey explained that the city could enforce the developer’s promises through a public restrictive covenant.

Noting that she grew up across the street from the property, Houston also questioned how the current proposal might impact the location’s heritage trees. She said that she used to climb one of those trees as a kid. Guernsey explained that this was an issue usually addressed later in the development process but that he would look into it.

On Thursday, Council will consider the case in earnest. Houston said she would be asking for the case to be heard at either 5:30 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. in order to make it easier for her constituents to attend the hearing.

Rendering courtesy of the city of Austin.

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