Powell Lane
Friday, July 13, 2018 by Jack Craver

North Austin apartment complex could include 125 affordable units

In many ways, the zoning case before the Planning Commission this Tuesday involving a proposed 258-unit apartment building was pretty typical. A developer wanted to build more units, and nearby neighbors were unhappy about it.

What was unusual about the proposed rezoning at 411 and 601 Powell Lane was that the unhappy neighbors were in favor of the land being zoned for a more intense use – one that would likely generate more traffic and activity in the surrounding area.

The current zoning on the property allows (but does not require) mixed-use developments that blend residential and commercial uses. Under that zoning, the developer, JCI Residential, is still allowed to build up to 220 apartment units. However, to get an additional 38 units, it is seeking to rezone the property to Multifamily Residence-Moderate-High Density (MF-4), which only allows for residential uses.

An agent for the developer, Alice Glasco, said that the company is currently in talks with the Housing Authority of the City of Austin about making half of all of the units affordable for those with incomes at 60 percent of the area median family income ($36,100 for a single person or $51,600 for a family of four). The additional 38 units will also allow the developer to offer more two-bedroom apartments, said Glasco, even though the great majority will be studios or one-bedroom units.

The city Planning and Zoning Department also supports the zoning change, noting in a brief that although the neighborhood plan “does not support large, new multifamily developments in the planning area, the City of Austin has a shortage of housing and this new proposed multifamily development would provide additional housing options for people in the planning area and in the City as a whole.”

Lyn Galbreth, a member of the North Lamar/Georgian Acres Neighborhood Plan Contact Team, disagreed. She said the area already has more than enough large apartment complexes and residents are hoping for a greater mixture of uses, including more retail and commercial uses and more owner-occupied residential units – either single-family homes or smaller multifamily residences, such as triplexes or fourplexes.

“We’re not knee-jerk opposed to more density, we’re not opposed to more affordable housing,” said Galbreth, but she also wanted to see more people who are “invested” in the community via homeownership. She noted that more than 80 percent of the units in their neighborhood are rentals, compared to 55 percent citywide.

In addition, said Galbreth, the zoning change went against what was called for in the neighborhood plan that she and others had worked so hard to craft in 2010.

Some commissioners saw the zoning request as a win-win situation. In a city strapped for affordable housing, a major apartment complex that would possibly serve a major low-income population was great news.

“I don’t know why we wouldn’t take that deal,” said Commissioner Fayez Kazi.

Commissioner Conor Kenny was also enthusiastic but said that the city might lose leverage in negotiations with the developer over the issue of affordable units if the Planning Commission approved the zoning. He suggested postponing the case until the commission could get a deal hammered out with HACA.

“I’ve been advised that it would kind of be giving away part of the game here to move ahead with this zoning change before those negotiations are complete, and that the folks in need of affordable housing might get a better deal as long as this zoning is withheld,” said Kenny.

“This is why we were reluctant to share that we were seeking assistance to make some of the units affordable,” said Glasco. “It’s troubling to me to find out last minute that you want to delay. It makes me wish we had not shared that information, because it seems like we’re being punished.”

Glasco added that her client was currently under contract to buy the property and that he was hoping to finalize the purchase after approval from the Planning Commission. He went under contract on the property at the beginning of the year but didn’t want to buy until he at least got an indication of support from a city body.

Chair James Shieh repeatedly warned his colleagues that state law forbids municipalities from making a zoning change contingent on affordability, even if in practice the promise of affordable units often influences whether a land use commission or City Council approves a requested zoning.

Some commissioners were sympathetic to the complaints voiced by Galbreth about wanting more homeownership or a greater mix of uses in the area.

Commissioner Trinity White was puzzled that city staff hadn’t considered a zoning category that would allow some commercial use and suggested that the commission instead recommend another zoning designation: GR-MU, or Community Commercial-Mixed Use. Staff responded, however, that that was not possible due to open meetings rules. Because GR-MU is considered a more “intense” zoning than what staff recommended, the commission could not adopt it without first providing public notice.

Other commissioners suggested the debate was largely futile. The developer was not interested in building a mixed-use development and mixed-use zoning would not require it to include commercial space.

“Even if you get the MU, it’s just letters on the map,” said Shieh.

Galbreth said that while she recognized the developer could build a large apartment complex regardless, a mixed-use designation would at least allow the potential for commercial space on the property, either in years to come or if JCI’s plans end up falling through.

In the end, the commission voted to approve the recommended zoning change, with all in favor except Commissioner Karen McGraw, who abstained. Kenny left before the vote was taken due to what he described as a severe headache.

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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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