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Commission recommends East 12th stay on urban renewal course

Monday, September 18, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

No speedometer exists for the vehicle of urban renewal, so the Planning Commission at its Sept. 12 meeting had to rely on guesswork to decide whether sections of the booming East 12th Street corridor should maintain their current pace of redevelopment or if they should be slowed down to accommodate one adjacent neighborhood. In the end, the commission voted to recommend denial of a request to modify the height restrictions in a section of the area’s Neighborhood Conservation Combining District.

East 12th has experienced significant investment since the Urban Renewal Plan was adopted in 1999. For the past several years, the Kealing neighborhood, to the immediate south of the corridor, has been petitioning to amend the NCCD and the Urban Renewal Plan to drop the height restrictions on the parcels north of their area. Last year, the Planning Commission voted 7-5 to initiate the zoning case for the modifications after the Urban Renewal Board brought it to the commission’s attention in response to Kealing residents’ complaints.

The zoning request made by the city asks for the parcels in Blocks 16, 17, 18 and part of 15 (24 total between 1425 and 1919 12th St. as well as 1192 ½ Poquito St.) to change from the NCCD’s Subdistrict 2 site development standards to those of Subdistrict 3. The height restriction for those lots, consequently, would change from 50 feet to 30. At the meeting, however, former Kealing Neighborhood Association President Lee Sherman reiterated that the neighborhood was primarily concerned with Blocks 16 and 17. “We truly think that height is the issue,” he said.

No buildings in the blocks in question have been built over 35 feet as of yet, but Chair Stephen Oliver pointed out that imposing a restriction would preclude any mixed-use three-story buildings. “(Fifteen feet) makes a huge difference,” he said.

Case manager Heather Chaffin said that staff did not support this motion because the majority of the property owners in the two subdistricts opposed the modifications. Patrick Houck, a 12th Street homeowner, said that Eureka Holdings, a real estate company that currently owns five of the properties in the subdistricts, has a different mindset than others in the community.

“Eureka even had its Realtor call me to urge me to oppose these NCCD changes because they would lower my property’s value,” Houck said. “Frankly I’m more concerned with the quality of life for me and my neighbors.”

Eureka has also disturbed some east side residents, explained Maegan Ellis with the Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods, by giving patronizing names for their east side partnerships. For example, she said, 1500 E. 12th St. is owned by “Sodosopa Salmon LP,” Sodosopa being a fictional downtown district portrayed in the television show South Park intended to satirize gentrification.

Eureka partner Harris Block denied Houck’s allegations and said that what his firm chooses to name their partnerships is really none of OCEAN’s business. “I really don’t like having arrows shot at me,” he said.

Block also commented that Eureka had bought all of its properties on 12th Street on the open market with the goal of revitalizing the area as the Urban Renewal Plan and NCCD had intended. “We have not displaced one person from any of the properties that we have acquired,” he said.

With CodeNEXT coming next year, Oliver said that there were going to be height changes everywhere. “As part of an Urban Renewal process it makes sense to bump the heights up because you’re trying to create a spark,” he said.

“It doesn’t take 50 feet to create a spark,” Commissioner Karen McGraw responded. She also speculated that the commission may be interpreting this request differently because it was brought forward by a neighborhood association and not a developer. “When a developer asks us for something, we feel pretty compelled to do something,” she said. “I don’t want us to see (this) as any different.”

Commissioner Trinity White agreed and said that the time for trying to light the fires of urban renewal on East 12th had passed. “Having lived (nearby) for the last decade I can tell you that we’ve been brought up,” White said. “Change has come. This plan has done its job, and it didn’t need the height to do it.”

Commissioner Patricia Seeger made a motion to recommend approval of the height modification as requested by the neighborhood, and Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza seconded. Before a vote was called, Commissioner Greg Anderson made a substitute motion to recommend denial of the modifications, seconded by Commissioner James Schissler.

“We are in an unbelievable housing shortage,” Anderson said. “If we’re going to get more affordable homes in this area, it’s not going to be through existing housing stock.”

White added a friendly amendment to put a 35-foot height limit on the 25-foot border of the subdistrict properties facing Kealing. The motion passed 7-5, with White, McGraw, Seeger, Zaragoza and Commissioner James Shieh dissenting.

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