Tuesday, March 7, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Dukes dunks county’s North Campus plans

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes’ surprise support for a competing project hobbled Travis County’s quest for tax credits for an innovative mixed-use development on Airport Boulevard.

“We’re not thrilled,” Economic & Strategic Planning Director Mark Gilbert told the Austin Monitor on Friday.

Gilbert explained that Dukes wrote a letter endorsing a Foundation Communities affordable housing project at Mueller but declined to provide similar support to the county’s plans to build both affordable housing and county offices at its North Campus at 5325 and 5335 Airport Blvd.

That letter gave Foundation Communities the advantage at the Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs, which uses a system of scoring applications for financing assistance that gives significant weight to recommendations by district representatives. Last August, state Rep. Celia Israel’s decision to forgo supporting Elysium Park in North Austin led to the city losing state tax credits to projects in Georgetown.

On Wednesday night, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt in her annual State of the County speech broke the news about the North Campus “hitting a roadblock” just the day before and that it would have a “nearly $8 million cost consequence.” Gilbert confirmed that number on Friday.

“We really wanted to win or lose on the merits of our project and not whether someone wrote a letter on behalf of someone in the district,” he added.

If built as currently planned, the project would feature 60,000 square feet of office space, mostly for county Health and Human Services offices, and 145 units of housing reserved for residents who make 30 percent to 60 percent of the median family income.

Walter Moreau of Foundation Communities told the Monitor that his project at Mueller will include 132 units with similar affordability targets. Fourteen of the units will be set aside for families who have experienced homelessness. Moreau is also planning to build an on-site learning center.

He explained that he began last summer to seek support for his project from Dukes, who is otherwise known to generally refrain from picking individual affordable housing developments to support. Moreau said that Dukes finally relented and wrote the letter of support in December, a month before the scandal-plagued representative reversed her pledge to resign from her office after taking the oath one last time.

Dukes was unavailable for comment on Friday and Monday, but Moreau suggested that her past work on ensuring that Mueller’s redevelopment plans included affordable housing helped play a role in her decision to support his project rather than the county’s.

“I think both projects are fantastic, but she made a choice to support Mueller,” said Moreau. “I know the county is disappointed, but we’re excited to move ahead and create opportunity for families at Mueller.”

Commissioner Jeff Travillion, who has professional ties to Dukes, said he talked with the representative and asked her to give the North Campus proposal “a good look,” but that in the end she “put her support behind the one she most believes in.”

While Travillion said he is “disappointed” that the county’s project has suffered a setback, he noted that his Precinct 1 will still benefit from a new affordable housing development.

“We’ll continue to push for more affordable housing projects in the future,” he said. “Supply is the problem, and until we get some more supply, we’ll continue to see increasing prices.”

As for the fate of the North Campus project, Gilbert said that despite the setback, the existing plans and the timeline remain intact.

“We’re going to do everything we can to stay on track,” Gilbert said. “We’re working actively to find equity partners or other federal or local funds to fill any kind of gap on the project’s financing.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Foundation Communities: Austin-based nonprofit focused on affordable housing issues and construction.

Travis County Commissioners Court: The legislative body for Travis County. It includes representatives from the four Travis County Precincts, as well as the County Judge. The County Judge serves as the chair of the Court.

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