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Planning Commission skeptical of apartment complex in Southeast Austin

Thursday, April 19, 2018 by Jack Craver

Things aren’t looking good for a landowner in Southeast Austin hoping to turn a 10-acre tract into a 125-unit apartment community.

At its latest meeting, few members of the Planning Commission voiced support for the request by the property owners, Angelos Angelou and John Sasaridis, to change the zoning on 4500 Nuckols Crossing Road from single-family to multifamily use.

Concerns voiced by neighbors about the additional traffic that would be generated on Nuckols Crossing – which is only 25 feet wide and has no sidewalks – clearly resonated with commissioners. Even those who said they were eager to see more multifamily housing in the area conceded that the existing infrastructure was troublesome.

The commission ultimately voted 7-4 to postpone the case until May 22, with a number of commissioners urging the applicant to try to develop a proposal that would ease some of the neighbors’ concerns. Commissioner Greg Anderson suggested that the developer could offer some “community developments,” such as public open space or sidewalks, that could appeal to the neighbors.

Ana Aguirre, chair of the Southeast Combined Neighborhood Plan Contact Team (as well as a member of the Zoning and Platting Commission), described the road as woefully overburdened and dangerous.

“If anybody rode a bike or even dared to walk, I would consider that almost suicidal,” she said.

Commissioner Tom Nuckols, who noted that the road is named after a family member, voted for the postponement but expressed doubt that the developer would be able to offer anything to address the neighbors’ concern over safety on the road.

“It doesn’t solve the traffic safety problem,” said Nuckols.

Ron Thrower, an agent for the property owners, argued that city staff, which recommended against the zoning change due to traffic concerns, was using an “archaic” metric for assessing “ideal” traffic conditions. The ideal number of vehicle trips for any road that is less than 30 feet wide, according to city code, is only 1,200. And yet Nuckols Crossing already has 11,000 vehicle trips a day, he said.

Nuckols acknowledged that the city had clearly already allowed development on the street to generate far more traffic than its own standards call for, but added that “past mistakes don’t justify making another one.”

Nuckols and others contrasted the zoning case with a similar zoning change on Shady Lane that the commission had recommended just an hour before. In that case, noted Nuckols, the street was 40 feet wide with sidewalks, compared to 25 feet wide without sidewalks.

Moreover, Shady Lane is right off of Airport Boulevard, which is slated to receive tens of millions of dollars in improvements as a result of the 2016 mobility bond in the coming years, while transportation staff confirmed that Nuckols Crossing, despite being recognized as substandard, is not scheduled to get any improvements anytime soon.

Commissioner Conor Kenny said that he would like to see more density in the area, but that the developer would likely need to offer another community benefit to get his vote as a result of the safety concerns.

“Generally, I only like to see upzonings if accompanied by affordable housing or other community benefits,” he said.

Thrower noted that the property owners had considered trying to participate in the city’s SMART Housing program, which would set aside a certain number of units for certain income levels, but said that the development was 0.6 mile away from the nearest bus stop, 0.1 mile farther than allowed for the SMART program.

Kenny and others urged the Austin Transportation Department to consider making improvements to Nuckols Crossing.

Commissioner Karen McGraw said she believed the existing zoning was better and did not foresee voting to authorize multifamily in the future.

“I know we’re looking for places to densify,” she said, “but I just don’t see this as one of those.”

In the end, Kenny, Anderson and Nuckols were joined by commissioners James Shieh, James Schissler, Jeffrey Thompson and Fayez Kazi in supporting postponement. In dissent were McGraw, Chair Stephen Oliver and commissioners Patricia Seeger and Todd Shaw.

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