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Commission votes against rezoning former mobile home park property

Thursday, December 14, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

Many commission decisions set a precedent, but only some make a statement. At its Dec. 12 meeting, the Planning Commission voted to recommend denying a rezoning application for a Montopolis property in what some commissioners called a clear example of gentrification.

2110 Thrasher Lane used to contain a mobile home park of 17 households before they were asked to leave in May. The residents were given 90 days to relocate, much less than the 270-day notice prescribed by the Tenant Relocation Ordinance approved by City Council in September 2016. However, because the evictions were carried out by the previous owner, Urban Rio LLC, and not the rezoning applicant, TLH Riverside 6507MF-1, LP, the ordinance’s restrictions did not apply.

Those circumstances did not stop newly appointed Commissioner Conor Kenny from interrogating David Cox, one of the owners, at the hearing. “You didn’t research the case before you bought the land?” Kenny asked at the meeting. Cox and agent Michael Whellan said that they did not know the details of what had transpired before TLH acquired title to the property.

The land is currently zoned for Family Residence (SF-3), and Cox explained that the request for Townhouse and Condominium Residence (SF-6) was to ease site constraints for a bigger project. The application was intended to be considered alongside another application to amend the East Riverside Corridor Regulating Plan for three properties on East Riverside Drive and another on Thrasher also owned by TLH.

“The approach we’re trying to take is create a buffer that provides a similar number of units that were there originally when it was a mobile home park,” Whellan said, “and having a more comprehensive ability to develop the site without going beyond the number of units that the entire property would have anticipated because of compatibility.”

Fred McGhee, speaking for the Montopolis Neighborhood Contact Team against the case, said that the mobile home park had been at that location for decades and that the future of the property should reflect that history. “Even mobile home parks have neighborhood character,” he said.

The commission had an obligation to follow the agenda of curbing rampant displacement set by recent Council actions, said contact team President Susana Almanza. The Strategic Housing Blueprint adopted in April proposes a few strategies for combating gentrification, including the development of a Central East Austin District Plan and introducing a preservation property tax exemption. Mayor Steve Adler also led the charge to pass a resolution in August that created a new task force to evaluate the current trend of displacement and report back early next year on how to address the pattern on a more systemic level.

“These issues can’t be addressed by upzoning our neighborhoods and bringing luxury or market rate apartments to our low-income, working-class community,” Almanza said.

To that end, Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza, who recalled the “heart-wrenching” testimonies she had heard when Cactus Rose residents had spoken against the closing of their mobile home park during a zoning hearing last year, said that she wanted to send a clear message to Austin developers.

“It is not okay to displace residents and ask for a zoning change afterwards,” said Zaragoza. “I think we need to let the community know that our memory is long for those cases.”

Following up on his earlier comments, Kenny said that in his opinion this case exemplified the “horrors” of gentrification. “Not only are they wiping (the site) bare and displacing people to replace it with higher-priced (housing), but by all accounts and appearances the previous owners purposefully circumvented a deliberate City Council policy to alleviate the costs and burdens of displacement,” he said.

The motion to deny the rezoning request passed 9-0-2, with commissioners James Shieh and James Schissler abstaining. Because of unusual end-of-the-year scheduling, the case will not have to wait long to go before Council: It is Item 107 on today’s agenda.

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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