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Casar opposes dense rezoning Renteria supports

Monday, February 25, 2019 by Jo Clifton

On Thursday, Council approved the rezoning of two adjacent properties in the East Riverside corridor that will allow for considerably greater density when the property is redeveloped. The approval, which was on first reading only, was done over the objections of District 4 Council Member Greg Casar, who attempted to convince his colleagues to postpone the vote.

The properties, which are located at 2215 and 2315 Town Lake Circle, are in Council Member Pio Renteria’s District 3, and Renteria indicated his strong support for the project, saying the November Council election showed that Austinites favor greater density. Renteria said the city needs to move forward with more housing and he had assurances from the developer that they would provide some affordable housing on the site.

Casar said he was concerned because the backup material for the case did not indicate how many multifamily units were going to be demolished and what plans there might be to assist the current inhabitants of those units. He was also concerned because there is no indication of the income levels of the people being displaced.

Council Member Alison Alter pointed out the obvious – the properties are in Renteria’s district and she would defer to his judgment. However, she asked for a comment from the applicant. Leah Bojo of the Drenner Group, representing owner Diana Zuniga, said she could not explain the absence of information in the backup. However, she pointed out that developers were going through the rezoning phase of the project before doing the site plan. She offered to meet with any Council members who had more questions before second and third readings.

Although Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza provided a second for Casar’s motion to postpone the case, she did not vote for the postponement. Only Council Member Ann Kitchen voted with Casar. Except for Casar, every Council member voted to approve first reading for the zoning change.

Bojo told the Austin Monitor that while the approximately 300 units currently on the two sites are somewhat run-down, the tenants pay market rate. Under the density bonus program, developers plan to build more units than are currently on the site.

Staff and the Planning Commission both recommended approval of the zoning change. The staff report said, “Though preliminary, the applicant has proposed that Town Lake Circle 1 could include multifamily units with the possibility of additional commercial and pedestrian oriented uses.”

Buildings on the property are currently limited to 65 feet, but once the zoning change is approved, the maximum building height would be 120 feet through the density bonus program. That program requires the developer to provide on-site affordable housing or a fee-in-lieu, and provision of publicly accessible open space.

A 2015 ordinance requires property owners to hold a public meeting to inform neighbors about the requested zoning change. That meeting was held in November 2018. According to backup material, the neighborhood plan contact team sent a letter stating that they were not in opposition to the change.

After the hearing, Casar said he “wasn’t ready to vote for something that would be displacing people on Riverside Drive. … It’s a low-income area and demolishing market-rate units that low-income tenants live in isn’t where I think we should be adding additional housing density, unless there’s a lot of protections and a lot of work done to take care of those folks.” He added, “Generally if we’re going to add more housing, I prefer for us to add it in places in the city where there aren’t existing low-income people living there.”

Bojo told the Monitor that the developers would offer current tenants a chance to rent the new units before offering them to the general public. In addition, she said, there would be a number of affordable units, though they do not know how many at this time. It could be another two to three years before the apartments currently on the ground are eliminated. She acknowledged that there is no way to know how many affordable units might be available until after the project goes through the site plan process.

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