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Commission recommends mixed use family-friendly project in East Austin

Thursday, December 21, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

A mixed use commercial rezone request in the middle of an east side single-family neighborhood met unanimous approval from Planning commissioners at their Dec. 12 meeting. Staff had recommended against placing such intense zoning in a residential area, but the applicant’s intentions to build several four-bedroom units as part of the project made the rezone palatable to both the neighborhood and commission.

The Govalle/Johnston Terrace Neighborhood Contact Team did not send a representative to the meeting, but members did submit a letter where they listed their conditions and expressed their overall support for a project that would provide 10-12 units of family-friendly housing. They also acknowledged applicant Anmol Mehra’s participation in the S.M.A.R.T. Housing Program, which will require the project to make three of the units affordable to households making under 65 percent of the median family income for 20 years.

Agent Glen Coleman explained that the Community Commercial (GR) base zoning would allow the first floor of the three-story building to be occupied by artisans like potters, leather-workers, and other custom manufacturers. This commercial level, he said, is what would make the multi-bedroom units economically feasible.

As an alternative to the applicant’s request, staff had recommended a higher density single-family zone that would conform more with the surrounding structures. The current zoning for the properties at 3524, 3528 and 3532 Gonzales Street is Family Residence (SF-3).

Part of the reason the neighborhood is desperate for family-friendly housing is the declining enrollment at Brooke Elementary. According to the Facility Master Plan Update adopted by the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees in April, the school is currently at 68 percent capacity and may be consolidated into nearby Zavala and Linder elementary schools if the community does not get the numbers up. However, school board Trustee Ann Teich, who sits as an ex officio member of the Planning Commission, clarified that there were no firm plans to close Brooke at this time.

Some commissioners were skeptical as to whether or not the affordable units would turn out to be the four-bedrooms or if they would end up being one of the studios. Whereas the commission can set restrictions as far as setbacks, height and other zoning specifications in a conditional overlay, it would require a restrictive covenant either with the city or the neighborhood to enforce particular affordability requirements. Coleman said the applicant would be interested in pursuing that sort of arrangement.

“If you want this kind of affordability, then all of us are going to have to take some risk,” Coleman said.

Commissioner Karen McGraw also raised the concern as to how many bathrooms each of the four-bedrooms would have. She said that in her neighborhood she had witnessed projects turn into student housing that had not been proposed as such. “They all have a bathroom attached to every single bedroom, and then they become kind of a dorm,” she said. Coleman said that he did not know how many bathrooms the units would end up having if the zoning application was approved.

The commission unanimously approved a motion recommending the applicant’s request with conditions involving prohibited uses, a vegetative buffer and fence, limiting the height at 40 feet, limiting commercial use to 40 percent, and asking that a restrictive covenant be made with the neighborhood detailing other restrictions like affordability before the case goes before City Council.

Map courtesy of thee city of Austin.

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