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Friday, September 14, 2018 by Alyx Wilson

Ballpark Apartments protesters disrupt Planning Commission meeting

This week’s Planning Commission meeting came to an unexpected and abrupt pause on Tuesday. Around a dozen protestors from Defend Our Hoodz, or Defiende el Barrio, chose to stand and chant in the middle of the agenda reading rather than during the citizen communication portion of the meeting.

“We don’t need to be a part of your process, your process is bullshit,” one activist said when warned that they were out of line with the meeting regulations. “We will not play by the rules of the gentrifiers.” (Defend Our Hoodz declined to release names of the speakers to the Austin Monitor.)

The crowd chanted, “Hey Michael Whellan, withdraw the application.” One of the protesters yelled profanities, called Whellan a snake, and threw rubber snakes at the lawyer, who is representing the developer in the rezoning case they were protesting.

The application in question seeks to rezone five properties at South Pleasant Valley Road and East Riverside Drive to mixed-use zoning. Currently, the property is home to the Ballpark Apartments. At Tuesday’s meeting, Planning and Zoning Department staff requested an indefinite postponement on the cases.

“These cases are part of the largest transportation impact analysis that’s ever been done, and the applicant had just received their first round of comments back,” senior planner Scott Grantham said. The applicant was anticipating the massive TIA review to take more than 60 days, which is the longest amount of time an applicant can request a postponement.

The developer, LA-based investment firm Nimes Capital, has purchased the apartment complex and land adjacent to it. Rezoning the land is the next step toward demolishing the apartment complex and beginning development on a Domain-style mixed use project.

According to an article in CultureMap, plans include over 4,000 new apartments, around 435,00 square feet for dining and shopping, and 4 million square feet for office spaces.

Whellan explained that the redevelopment plan includes many positive things for the community including affordable housing, water quality for all the tracts, and the addition of a trail. Whellan also said that the taxes from the development would make up 10 percent of Del Valle Independent School District’s budget.

Before being escorted out by security, the group claimed to represent the working people of Riverside and passed out pamphlets criticizing the city and its affluent residents for their actions that cause displacement of Austin’s working class.

“That represents a different form of advocacy. It’s not good or bad, it’s just the form of advocacy they have adopted, and we will always stand ready to engage with anybody in a discussion on these really important matters,” Whellan told the Monitor.

“There’s an expectation of ‘civility’ that shuts down the very real issues that working-class communities deal with,” said Jessica Meza, who is a tenant of Ballpark Apartments and one of the protesters present at Tuesday night’s meeting. “There is no civility in gentrification. The idea of civility is only used to silence us, as if reiterating the idea of the uncivil black and brown savages.”

After the commission resumed and the facilitator concluded reading the agenda, Commissioner Greg Anderson asked staff about the disruption and about possible outreach solutions for groups that were feeling unheard.

“The folks we saw tonight are younger than those we’ve seen in the past, and a lot of us sometimes talk about the fact that we wish we did have participation from younger Austinites,” said Anderson, “I don’t want to pretend like that didn’t just happen.”

Grantham and Planning and Zoning Assistant Director Jerry Rusthoven said that similar altercations had happened with the group before.

“We’d be happy to engage with any citizen, regardless of your age,” Rusthoven said. “The caveat is that they have to participate in a meaningful and constructive way. But that has been a challenge up until now.”

The Ballpark Apartments are regularly advertised through their websites toward college students at the University of Texas, St. Edward’s University, Huston-Tillotson University and Austin Community College.

Grantham said that staff had been in communication with other Ballpark residents who had been very open to being involved in the process, and that the group that rallied at this meeting was not representative of all the residents that they had been in contact with.

Regardless, some commissioners were disappointed by the reminder that citizens often feel the system is rigged, and that they don’t have a say in Austin’s future.

“We provide wealthy homeowners veto power over changes to existing central neighborhoods, but we provide little protection for apartment dwellers,” said Commissioner Jeff Thompson. “Preserving two-bedroom bungalows at $800,000 each cannot Keep Austin Weird.”

The commission voted 11-0 in favor of the indefinite postponement. Commissioner Patricia Seeger was absent.

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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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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