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Flats on Shady plan

Affordability trumps traffic concerns for Govalle apartment complex

Tuesday, April 17, 2018 by Jack Craver

The Planning Commission recommended that City Council approve a zoning change that will allow a 290-unit apartment complex to be built at 1125 Shady Lane, near the intersection of Bolm Road and Airport Boulevard.

The commission voted 7-4 to change the zoning on the 8-acre lot from single family to multifamily, despite objections from the Govalle-Johnston Terrace Neighborhood Contact Team over traffic and neighborhood character.

The hearing on April 10 was the second debate over the proposed development. The commission postponed action on the item in February.

Dave Anderson, an agent for the developer, emphasized the affordability benefits of the project. In addition to pledging that 10 percent of the units would be restricted to those at 80 percent of the median family income, many more of the units would be targeted toward “missing middle” families at between 80 percent and 120 percent MFI. He also noted that 25 percent of the units would be at least two bedrooms, or “family friendly.”

Daniel Llanes, the head of the contact team, reiterated the arguments he made in February and pointed to the existing neighborhood plan that encouraged single-family zoning. He said that the traffic situation in the area is already a disaster and that it couldn’t absorb such a large development before the city made significant improvements to the infrastructure, particularly at the intersection of Airport Boulevard and Bolm Road.

Llanes also highlighted the increased population coming from two nearby developments: thinkEAST, a major mixed-use project that is currently under construction, and another multifamily project at 1105 Airport Boulevard. Another project would mean that as many as 900 apartment units could be coming into the area, he said, an increase in population that he said existing transit options could not support.

“There is no train station. There is no Green Line. The bus system is woefully inadequate,” he said.

Commissioner Tom Nuckols noted that there were bus stops nearby on Airport Boulevard.

Llanes told Nuckols that Austin had the “most piss-poor bus system in Texas,” due to a lack of reliability and frequency. He had tried to rely on the bus but had eventually given up, he said.

The proposed site is 0.3 miles from a stop for the 350 bus route on Airport Boulevard, which runs south to Montopolis and north to the North Loop neighborhood but does not go downtown. It only runs every 30 minutes and is not slated to be one of the frequent routes (at least every 15 minutes) under the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s overhaul of the bus routes that will be implemented in June. At the very least, however, that route will allow commuters heading downtown to transfer to No. 18, which will become a “frequent” route.

Commissioner Greg Anderson, who noted that he was an enthusiastic bus user, said that bus service is justified by housing, not land. The additional housing in the area will make it much more compelling to Capital Metro to add service, he said.

City staff confirmed that, while the developer will be required to pay into a city fund to build infrastructure improvements, whatever is paid will not be enough to “turn dirt.”

What will be coming eventually, however, are significant improvements to Airport Boulevard, including the Bolm intersection, as a result of the 2016 mobility bond. It is likely, however, that those projects won’t be completed until five or six years from now.

Anderson, the agent for the developer, noted that the project itself is likely three years from completion, considering the time it will take to get permits, get the site plan reviewed and build the complex.

At the last hearing, Llanes had said that he would prefer a small number of expensive single-family homes over an apartment complex that includes affordable units because single-family homes would lead to those who had greater investment in the community.

At the April 10 hearing, he rejected the idea that new single-family homes necessarily had to be expensive, claiming that they could be built for less than $100,000.

That argument only appeared to appeal to Commissioner Karen McGraw, who said that she doubted that the developer’s affordability pledge could be enforced and who criticized “having so much rental in the area” because “what we’re losing is people who actually have equity in the area.”

There is currently no formal requirement for the development to include any income-restricted units, but the commission directed city staff to explore creating a legal mechanism by which the city could hold the developer to its affordability pledge.

Other commissioners issued staunch defenses of the project.

“Most Austinites rent, and there is a shortage of rental units, and not bringing more units online until the infrastructure is in place aggravates the affordability side of the equation,” said Nuckols, who nevertheless sympathized with the infrastructure concerns.

Commissioner Jeffrey Thompson said that denying the project would not lead to less traffic, as much of the traffic in the area is likely coming from those driving into the urban core from U.S. Highway 183. The more that development is pushed out of the city, he said, the more traffic will be coming in off the highways.

“Whatever’s going to happen, it’s going to be a change, whether it’s 290 medium-income family apartments or $600,000 homes, it’s going to be a very different feel for the neighborhood,” he said, signaling that he favored the former.

Anderson also said he liked the project.

“We’re in need of homes,” he said. “This is a good spot for homes.”

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