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Commission decides mistake made in East Austin plan

Tuesday, July 18, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Cold case zoning files may not have the same morbid allure as the cold case murders unearthed on late night television, but for the neighborhood and stakeholders involved in these mysteries, justice is still on the line. Last week, the Planning Commission sided with staff’s judgment that a 16-year-old zoning rollback of an East Austin property, part of a broader downzoning initiated by the adoption of the Central East Austin Neighborhood Plan in 2001, had in fact been a mistake.

In its list of planning priorities, the neighborhood plan recommends surveying the Blackshear and Prospect Hill neighborhoods for properties zoned multifamily but that were actually being used as single family or vacant. By reverting these properties back to single-family zoning, the stated goal was to “preserve existing housing and encourage infill.”

One of the lots targeted for rezoning was 1139 ½ Poquito Street. Its current owner, Rex Bowers, was encouraged in 2015 by his agent Gayle Rosenthal (who happens to own a neighboring property) to approach city staff about investigating a possible error that had occurred in the process. There are four units currently at the address, and as the plan states only properties that were single family or vacant were intended for rezoning. Principal planner Wendy Rhoades found that the city’s records showed that water service permits had been granted for four residents in the early 1950s and that it appeared that there had been four units ever since.

As for why the property was incorrectly assigned during the neighborhood planning process, Rhoades speculated in a memo to Planning Commission Chair Stephen Oliver that it had to do with the construction involving two duplexes (one near the street and the other behind it), rather than a single building. “It is possible that the staff may have seen only the front duplex on the property when viewed from the right-of-way which resulted in the misidentification of this property,” she said in the memo.

William Hodge, an architect representing the owner, said at the meeting that Bowers wanted to resolve this mix-up in order to make it easier to sell the duplexes. “When selling the units in this condo regime, some people pay cash, and some people get mortgages,” Hodge said, “and some mortgage lenders do not lend when the use does not comply with the zoning standards.”

Members of the Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods, however, feel that no mistake had been made. Maegan Ellis, the group’s secretary who spoke in opposition to rezoning the property back to multifamily, clarified that the neighborhood plan and its corresponding future land use map had been drafted to redress longstanding land use grievances held by the community in response to the city’s “urban renewal” efforts.

“It remains unclear to us why rezoning is necessary to address current noncompliance,” she said. “Rezoning from one bad fit to another seems to err on the side of undoing neighborhood planning for additional entitlements that are not needed to maintain an existing use in a newly renovated state.”

Echoing Ellis’ apprehension, Commissioner Trinity White said that whether an error had been made or not, reversing a democratic decision made over a decade ago could open the proverbial can of worms.

“The neighborhood planning process is really the largest undertaking of outreach that we currently have in our city,” she said. “If we’re saying that the best that we can do as a city is flawed and that we should be making changes because we’ve made errors in that process, how does that not open us up for having these conversations every two weeks?”

Oliver joked that the can of worms had been opened a long time ago. “There’s not a process that we have in the city that’s not flawed in some way,” he said. “We have so many cases that we think are going to be a precedent for everything, but I find that we’re dealing with the same precedents every time.”

In a compromise of sorts, Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza made a motion to approve staff’s recommendation of rezoning back to multifamily, but to scale down the proposed category of MF-4 to MF-2 with SF-3 site development standards. Commissioner Tom Nuckols seconded, and the motion passed 10-1-1, with Commissioner Patricia Seeger dissenting and Commissioner Angela De Hoyos Hart abstaining.

This story has been corrected since publication, to reflect the fact that Maegan Ellis spoke for OCEAN, not Tracy Witte, as originally reported.

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