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Berkman zoning sparks quiet argument

Tuesday, November 20, 2018 by Jo Clifton

Council Member Ora Houston joined her colleagues Thursday in a unanimous vote to rezone properties on Berkman Drive, but she was clearly conflicted about it.

The decision will allow a developer to build 40 rental units and assorted retail in the middle of a residential block. Houston said she was concerned that development of the property, which spans 6203, 6205 and 6207 Berkman Drive and 6210 Hickman Avenue, would hasten decisions by neighboring property owners who operate two relatively affordable apartment complexes to sell out and displace renters. District 4 Council Member Greg Casar disagreed, but did not spend much time arguing with her during Thursday’s meeting.

Houston said, “This is going to be a very good test case on how development will ultimately transform the neighborhood.” She explained that although the property is within her District 1, she was not much involved with the case before it got to Council. Berkman is within both Council districts 1 and 4 and it was Casar who seemed most familiar with the case.

Houston said the case would allow the city to track and observe what happens when “this amount of intensity comes into the middle of a block. … I suspect that as this project moves forward those two apartment complexes will be flipped. Those people who are now able to live there on a bus line where they can get to and from groceries and other kinds of amenities … will be forced to move out and the new neighbors will move in at a higher income range.”

She also criticized the parking requirement reduction, saying that the project will also be a test case to see whether people in the new apartments simply park on side streets rather than in the complex parking lot.

Houston concluded that the project would offer lessons in displacement and gentrification and said that she hoped that she would be around to say, “I told you so.” Houston, who will be finishing her term at the end of December, declined to run for a second term.

Casar disagreed, saying upgrading the properties would occur regardless of any zoning change on this property. He told the Austin Monitor on Monday that other properties are being developed into mixed-use development just north of the Berkman property. “Prices have already gone up so much in this neighborhood, and so I think having income-restricted units on the site is an important part of this zoning case, and if we don’t change the zoning then we will most likely only get expensive condos, but with this zoning we can get some number of moderately priced ones.”

Attorney Jeff Howard, representing Berkman Terraces, LLC, told Council that the new zoning would allow for 40 units and that the developer would make 10 percent of those units available only to low-income residents.

The developer agreed with neighbors’ request to prohibit access from Hickman Avenue except for emergency vehicles. Staff did not support prohibiting that access, but did not make an argument against it during the meeting.

Neighborhood leader Rick Krivoniak told Council that traffic improvements were planned for Berkman, including placement of a median in front of the subject property. If that occurs, he said, cars would probably be able to enter and exit via right turns only. That might make a difference in people’s attitudes toward using Hickman Avenue for vehicles entering the property.

Casar told the Monitor the right turn requirement would not necessarily mean that the city would require an entrance and exit on Hickman, but there was a question about whether the neighbors knew about the possibility of the median when they asked Council to prohibit access from Hickman.

Council asked the planning department staff to find out whether the Transportation Department was planning the median and restricted access from Berkman and approved the zoning on first reading only.

Council Member Delia Garza generally opposes gated communities and the accompanying crash gates that allow emergency responders, in particular firefighters, to enter properties while inhibiting regular access. She said she was supporting the zoning change on first reading, but would not do so on second and third reading with that gate.

The Planning Commission recommended the neighborhood’s commercial mixed-use zoning with a conditional overlay prohibiting a number of uses. The neighborhood requested that Council also prohibit placement of a gas station on the site and the developer agreed to that request.

Map courtesy of Google Maps.

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