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Council rejects dense project on narrow street

Thursday, March 16, 2017 by Jo Clifton

For developer Ross Wilson at PSW Real Estate and lobbyist Glen Coleman, downzoning the junkyard at 2413 Thornton Road from commercial services to Multifamily-4 seemed like a no-brainer.

But because of the narrow neighborhood street and the increased traffic a 70-unit multifamily project would generate, staff recommended MF-2, with construction of fewer than 55 units, not the 70 units the developer was seeking.

The developer agreed to spend the $162,000 needed to widen the road and create a right turn lane onto Oltorf Street before occupancy. The Planning Commission agreed with PSW, recommending MF-4 along with various traffic improvements including a right turn lane out of the neighborhood and a stoplight at Thornton and Oltorf, just west of the Missouri Pacific Railroad tracks.

City Council on March 2 rejected the commission’s recommendation and, under the leadership of Council Member Ann Kitchen, voted to zone the property MF-2 on second reading.

Coleman told the Austin Monitor this week that there is not likely to be a third reading, even though the case is on Council’s March 23 draft agenda for third reading.

Coleman said, “We will not be moving forward with a multifamily project of fewer than 70 units,” adding that he was not sure whether PSW would decide to build the 75,000-square-foot office building it is authorized to build under the current zoning.

Under MF-4, PSW offered to make 10 percent of the 70 units affordable for a family earning 60 percent median family income for 40 years. However, with fewer than 70 units, the developer will not build the affordable units or anything else in the multifamily category, Coleman said.

After Kitchen made a motion for MF-2, Council Member Greg Casar made a substitute motion for the developer’s desired MF-4 in order to keep the affordable housing. Council Member Delia Garza seconded his motion.

Casar tried to convince his colleagues that voting for MF-2 would be a mistake, but could not. “We won’t have helped any by not changing the zoning,” said Casar. “This is already entitled for a more intensive use. … If it comes back with 10 or 15 less units and without the affordable units, that’s the way it pans out.”

Kitchen told her colleagues they should not support MF-4, which members of the neighborhood had rejected.

One of those neighbors was Gail Buhler, who lives on Thornton Road. She asked Council not to approve a zoning change to MF-4 because it would add more traffic to the neighborhood. She explained that she is visually impaired and walks down the road to get to the bus stop.

“I feel like I’m taking my life into my hands many times,” she said, explaining that she frequently ends up walking in the street because of the lack of sidewalks. She told Council that the idea of having more traffic on Thornton Road terrifies her.

Kitchen’s argument revolved around the fact that Thornton Road is already overburdened and can’t take the additional traffic that a dense multifamily development would bring. According to a traffic analysis, the street should have only 1,800 trips per day and already is hosting an additional 830 trips per day.

Kitchen said, “So you combine that with the situation where there’s not a lot of room to make a lot of improvement. … The other thing that’s important to remember about that area, if you all are not familiar with it, is it comes out on Oltorf very close to a railroad crossing gate. … The Thornton Road intersection (and) its proximity to a railroad crossing is a major limiting factor, creating transportation delays and traffic backup. So you’ve got a combination of a collector road that’s already overburdened in an area that is difficult to do much in the way of improvements.”

She said that it would be impossible to do what the Planning Commission had recommended in terms of roadway improvements, but it was not clear exactly what she meant. Council directed staff to look for additional money for the roadway improvements, including a stoplight, when they did first reading of MF-2 in November. Staff reported that they had not found the funding.

Only Casar and Garza voted for his motion, and then the entire Council voted for MF-2.

Coleman pointed out that under the current zoning, PSW can build a commercial project that will generate approximately 826 trips per day, compared to the 460 trips per day the MF-4 project would generate.

PSW is already building an MF-2 project next door to the junkyard. Kitchen expressed skepticism about the idea that PSW would actually build the commercial project.

Update: Coleman confirmed Thursday that PSW would be moving forward with the commercial project.

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