Monday, March 5, 2018 by Joseph Caterine

East side zoning case gets personal

It takes great care for the Planning Commission to balance developer and neighborhood concerns for any zoning case. That can be especially true when the land in question is smack dab in the middle of one of the most rapidly gentrifying ZIP codes in the city. Not only was a compromise not reached and a vote postponed for a 78702 rezone at the commission’s Feb. 27 meeting, tensions flared and accusations were exchanged between some members of the commission and community opposition.

Owner Otto Friedrich Jr. has applied to change the zoning at 1125 Shady Lane from Family Residence (SF-3) to Multifamily Residence – Moderate-High Density (MF-4) in order to construct a 290-unit apartment complex. Agent Dave Anderson said that in response to neighborhood concerns, the applicant was willing to limit the height to 50 feet (instead of the entitled 60 feet) and stay below a limit of 2,000 vehicle trips per day.

While the owner was willing to put those provisions in a private restrictive covenant with the neighborhood, Anderson said they had not had an opportunity to talk to the neighborhood about including proposed affordability requirements of 10 percent of the units at 80 percent median family income. “We may not agree on this project, but our dialogue is good,” Anderson said at the meeting.

Daniel Llanes, speaking on behalf of the Govalle-Johnston Terrace Neighborhood Contact Planning Team, questioned whether the future land use map, which had prescribed a single-family use for this lot, meant anything at all when it was so regularly overturned.

Commissioner Tom Nuckols pointed out that if the neighborhood did not play ball with the developer, it could lose an opportunity for affordable units and instead wind up with 37 expensive single-family homes, but Llanes said that outcome would be preferable.

“We want to see homeownership. We don’t want to turn into a sea of apartments like what’s happened south of the river. (That) does not create any kind of political neighborhood stability,” Llanes said. “I would rather have an expensive house there and know that that neighbor is going to invest in the neighborhood and be one of our neighbors.”

After hearing the firm resistance of Llanes and other community members, Commissioner Karen McGraw said she sympathized with their premise that equity plays a role in how a neighborhood can take a decisive role in its own future development, so she proposed postponing the item. Because the contact team had just met, Llanes asked if it could be pushed back into April, which would be after the team’s end-of-March meeting.

Although Anderson agreed to an April 10 postponement, Commissioner Angela De Hoyos Hart suggested the neighborhood hold a special called meeting to get ahead of the CodeNEXT storm on the horizon. Llanes took offense to that proposal, citing how the number of rezoning cases in his neighborhood already forces him and other community members to volunteer too much of their time. “If I’m not careful, I’ll take it personally and resent the fact that I feel like I’m being pushed,” he said. “Can’t do it.”

Firing back minutes later, Chair Stephen Oliver said he resented the fact that Llanes had earlier labeled the commission as “development top-heavy,” referencing the city charter provision that commission membership will be at least two-thirds “not directly or indirectly connected with real estate and land development.” He emphasized the holistic approach that the commission makes in evaluating each case.

“We are looking at transportation. We are looking at the environment. We are looking at trees. We are looking at the housing costs. We are looking at affordability,” Oliver said. “Sometimes you like us, sometimes you don’t like us.”

The motion to postpone to April 10 passed 8-4, with Hart and commissioners James Schissler, Conor Kenny and Fayez Kazi dissenting.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

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