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Renteria says no on tough Vinson Oaks case

Tuesday, March 28, 2017 by Jo Clifton

Although City Council approved a zoning change on second reading last week that would allow for town houses, including two affordable units, in a neighborhood south of Ben White, property owner Antonio Giustino may find himself back at square one when the item returns for third reading.

The property at 4511 Vinson Drive is on a narrow road within District 3, which Council Member Pio Renteria represents. The property is currently zoned SF-3.

Council approved the change to SF-6 on second reading on a vote of 8-3, one vote short of the number needed to overcome a valid petition.

With Renteria leading the no votes, Council members Ora Houston and Leslie Pool also voted against the change. The project cannot finally move forward without nine votes because the neighborhood has a valid petition. Nearly 55 percent of area neighbors signed that petition.

It was a little after 1 a.m. on Friday when Renteria told his colleagues that he could not vote to upzone the property. “I’m really concerned about what might happen” further down the road, he said, pointing out that there are three or four more lots in addition to Giustino’s that might request town home zoning on the same street.

Giustino also offered to make two town homes out of 16 available to families at 60 percent of the median family income if Council requested that. He had already promised the units at 80 percent MFI.

Two members of the neighborhood waited through the lengthy zoning cases ahead of theirs, including the controversial Austin Oaks planned unit development.

Neighborhood resident Larry Murphy told Council that he and others in the neighborhood agreed that “any private development on this particular parcel of land at this time, given the current existing conditions on the ground and what it looks like for our residents … is irresponsible. It’s just not a win – two units of affordable housing rental for five years is not affordable housing in South Austin.”

Council Member Greg Casar made the motion in favor of the zoning change, and Council Member Delia Garza seconded the motion.

Garza said she thought she would be able to say no easily when she first looked at the zoning request. However, the request changed with the developer asking for fewer units.

“I know Vinson well, and I thought that’s going to be an easy no. Like, Vinson can’t support a giant, you know, development. … I remember coming to that first Council meeting when we did first reading and I came in thinking that’s where I was going to go and then” as she heard the number of units drop, she began to change her mind. Ultimately, she explained, Council simply can’t stop development on a piece of property.

“I understand the precedent concern. If this were indeed an upzoning that created a lot of units, I could see that issue. But this is basically the same number of units, and even if we don’t approve this, we can’t stop development on that.”

Between Vinson Drive and Burleson Road there is a railroad segment known as the Bergstrom Spur, which is still owned by Union Pacific. Council Member Ann Kitchen was one of those hoping that the city would do a traffic study for Vinson Drive, including the possibility of converting the railroad segment into an urban trail.

According to city staff, acquisition of the Bergstrom Spur would cost between about $15.5 million and $18.9 million. Giustino told Council that he would be willing to dedicate property for a trailhead for that trail. He said he did not know whether that would be part of the ordinance, but he was willing to commit to the trailhead, among other conditions.

Assistant City Attorney Mitzi Cotton said she did not think it would be appropriate to put such an item into the ordinance, but did not preclude putting it into a memo.

Kitchen, arguing in favor of the zoning change, said, “The Bergstrom Spur is something that has been on the books for a long time for us to look into. I know that Council Member Renteria has worked on that in the past, and I want to say that it was meant – it is – it’s a tier 1 trail,” meaning one with a high priority.

She pointed out that it could be considered for funding as part of the transportation bond package. “It is not at the moment because there are concerns about the fact it’s still owned by (Union Pacific) and there’s questions about whether (the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority) wants to buy it or not, but I’m committed to still considering buying it as part of this 2016 bond package, and I’m hoping that I can work with Council Member Renteria on that.”

In response to questions from Kitchen, Transportation Director Robert Spillar said his department plans to do a traffic study on Vinson later this spring.

This story has been corrected to change the word “medium” to “median” and to clarify that two members of the public spoke, though others remained through the hearing.

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