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Commission tries in vain to add affordability requirements to commercial rezone

Friday, December 22, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

The legal constraints of Vertical Mixed Use zoning stalled efforts to add income-restricted affordable housing to a rezoning request at the Zoning and Platting Commission’s Dec. 19 meeting.

The 2-acre property at 9829 1/2 North Lake Creek Parkway is currently zoned Multifamily Residence-Highest Density (MF-6) and is located at the corner of a commercial intersection. The lot had originally been zoned as Community Commercial (GR) in 1986, but it was rezoned in 2014 along with 7.6 acres to the south for a high-density housing project. However, the developer who had asked for the change did not end up closing a deal.

New owner 620/183 Limited Partnership determined that it was not economically feasible to use the whole 9.6-acre tract for housing, choosing instead to develop a senior citizen apartment complex in the south and rezone the smaller lot back to commercial for a medical use. “If we can get this parcel zoned GR,” agent Jeffrey Howard said at the meeting, “it will help us deliver the senior living to the south.”

Even if the tract had to be split to make the project work, Commissioner Betsy Greenberg said that she did not understand why residential could not stay as an option for the 2-acre lot. She proposed General Office zoning with vertical mixed use, which offers incentives for developers to include 5 percent of units for households making less than 80 percent of the median family income.

In its letter of recommendation to the CodeNEXT drafters, the commission had criticized both the current Land Development Code and Draft 2 of the code rewrite for not including the option of affordability requirements in more zoning categories.

Sherri Sirwaitis, the case manager, said that for this request recommending VMU would not be possible because it had not been included in the notice sent out to residents of the area. Generally, the commission cannot recommend a higher intensity than requested, and specifically for VMU a property owner must apply for the designation if it is not in a neighborhood plan combining district.

“I’m still stunned,” said Chair Jolene Kiolbassa after the explanation, “because I thought that seemed like a no-brainer to ask for affordable housing there. It is a growth center.”

The city’s comprehensive plan, Imagine Austin, envisions regional centers as being the most urban parts of the city, including housing in the form of low- to high-rise apartments, townhouses, and mixed use projects. In the Lakeline Station center in particular, Commissioner Jim Duncan said, there was a significant deficit of affordable housing in the area. Sirwaitis mentioned that Draft 2 of CodeNEXT has proposed that all commercial zoning districts would become mixed use, although she was not sure how affordable housing would fit into that change.

Frustrated by the limitations of the current code, Greenberg compromised by suggesting that at least the commission include mixed use in its recommendation. “I would hate, right near a transit hub, to take away the opportunity for housing,” she said.

The Strategic Housing Blueprint has set a goal of 60,000 affordable units over the next 10 years. The commission voted unanimously to approve staff’s recommendation of Community Commercial, with the addition of mixed use.

Map courtesy of the city of Austin.

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