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Planning Commission endorses east side plan to replace auto salvage yard with mixed-use project

Monday, August 14, 2017 by Elizabeth Pagano

Continuing tension over gentrification, density and a lack of adequate planning for growth on the city’s east side converged on an unlikely fight to preserve an East Austin junkyard at the most recent meeting of the Planning Commission.

In the end, commissioners showed strong support for Painter Enterprises Inc.’s request that the zoning be changed from commercial and industry to multifamily and mixed use on 3.3 acres at 3212 East Cesar Chavez St. and 111 Tillery St. On Aug. 8, the Planning Commission voted 9-1 to recommend the change, and a restrictive covenant with the neighborhood, with Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza voting in opposition and Commissioner Trinity White absent.

Despite the unambiguous vote, commissioners openly sympathized with the neighborhood’s contact team, who opposed the zoning change. The commission had previously postponed the case in an attempt to make it more appealing to families. Members of the contact team told the commission that the proposed mixed-use project, which will include 321 multifamily units and 4,400 square feet of retail space, was not in line with what they wanted for their neighborhood.

Candice Fox spoke against the zoning change as a member of the Govalle Neighborhood Association and Govalle/Johnston Terrace Contact Team. “We are looking for projects to come into our neighborhood that will home the elderly, young families, the working class and the artisan community. This is at the heart of what concerns us about this project. We see the incoming wave of gentrification coming down the East Cesar Chavez, East Sixth Street and East Seventh Street Corridors. These units come with high price tags for residents and are built for mostly singles or couples.”

Fox showed a map of upcoming projects in the area that were being built for similar demographics. She explained that they didn’t have a lot of say in those other projects, which required minimal, if any, change from the city and asked that the commission hear their voice on this one.

Jessica Eley, who is also a member of the neighborhood association, agreed and explained the neighborhood feared the area could become another “condo canyon.”

“It’s a nice salvage yard. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s useful and it provides a good neighborhood service. We like it a lot,” said Eley.

Husch Blackwell’s Nikelle Meade, who was representing the applicant, told the commission that, after talking to the neighborhood, they had amended their request to MF-6, with a portion of the property on Tillery Street limited to two stories and an overall height limit of 75 feet.

The plan to redevelop the auto salvage yard was launched in July 2016, and Meade explained it has been revised over that time after talking to the neighborhood. Because of those talks, at this point the developer is offering to reserve 10 percent of all the units at 60 percent of the median family income for 40 years. In addition, 10 percent of those affordable units will be three-bedrooms or larger. That affordable housing will be enforced through a restrictive covenant with Tillery Square property owners, as will the commitment to creating a vegetative buffer and designing the project to better fit into the neighborhood. Overall, the mix of units has not been finalized, but Meade said it would mostly likely be 80 percent one-bedroom and a 20 percent mix of two- and three-bedroom units.

Meade also pointed out that, in terms of bulk and scale, the project is less-intense than what they could build under the current zoning, and reminded commissioners that the property is on an “activity corridor” that calls for mixed-use, multi-story buildings like those being proposed.

Daniel Llanes, who is the chair of the contact team, also opposed the rezoning and called for a mixture of income levels and opportunities for homeownership on the property, instead of the unaffordable projects currently underway throughout the neighborhood.

“This is the same trend that is exploiting Austin and has created a housing shortage,” he said. “I’m hoping you will help all of us in Austin reverse this trend of exploitation by very few people buying up all the property and then renting it to everyone else.”

Meade countered that there is existing single-family housing in the neighborhood and the proposed project, in fact, brought the mixture of housing types to the neighborhood.

Zaragoza explained that she had been going back and forth on this case for weeks because of the affordable units being offered.

“What holds me back is my understanding of the east side,” she said. “There are these large, industrial tracts that they’ve been saddled with and that we, as a city, have not taken responsibility for being more proactive in planning these.”

Zaragoza pointed out that history, and the numbers, showed that this was not the kind of project that would support schools, and she expressed frustration that they had such limited information about how to actively combat gentrification as a city.

“Apartments will probably have more students than auto parts,” countered Commissioner James Schissler.

Commissioner Jeffrey Thompson explained that, though he strongly supports urban development and the development of more housing, this case was a difficult one for him. He noted that density in East Austin had actually decreased as gentrification has swept east – pushing out large families in the process.

“More people were living there than are living there now,” he said. “That said, I think this a chance to get some affordable housing on an area that was a junkyard.”

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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