Thursday, February 28, 2019 by Jack Craver

Protesters show up late to protest postponed Riverside project

Although there was additional security at Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting, the commission discussed the case without incident, voting to indefinitely postpone action in order to allow city staff to continue evaluating Project Catalyst, a major mixed-use development proposed near East Riverside Drive and Pleasant Valley Road.

It wasn’t until two hours after conversation on the case concluded that demonstrators associated with Defend Our Hoodz, an anti-gentrification group, disrupted the meeting, forcing Commission Chair James Shieh to recess the panel and ask security to escort the protesters out of the room.

The protesters were escorted out of Council chambers without issue, chanting, “No Domain on Riverside,” referencing Project Catalyst’s frequent description as a “new Domain.”

It’s not clear why the demonstrators did not take action during the discussion over Catalyst. Many of them were in the audience from the beginning of the meeting.

Defend Our Hoodz has gained notoriety for vociferous protests, often featuring masked demonstrators and incendiary social media posts targeting east side businesses and public figures they judge complicit in gentrification. Two participants in a recent protest were charged with assault relating to an altercation with Larry Sunderland, president of the Friends of Riverside, a neighborhood group.

The group is protesting Catalyst, pointing out that it will come at the expense of existing apartment buildings, including the Ballpark Apartments, which largely caters to students.

If the requested rezonings are granted, the proposed development by Houston-based developer Presidium will cover 97 acres and include over 4,700 apartment units, 600 hotel rooms, roughly 4 million square feet of office space, over 400,000 square feet of retail and 60,000 square feet of medical offices. The percentage of units that will be affordable will likely be subject to negotiations with the city, but the developer has suggested between 8 and 12 percent.

On Tuesday, the commission asked city staff to return with updates on the progress of its evaluation in 30 days and 60 days. The “updates” are a way the commission can encourage staff to get the job done without setting a deadline for hearing the case, which would require the city once again to send out notifications to the thousands of residents in and around the project area.

Michael Whellan, an agent for the developer, urged the commission to set a date for future action on the zoning case, rather than delay it indefinitely.

“I’m not against a postponement, but I’m wanting to see focused and mindful activity that I think gets generated when you have hearing dates,” he said.

Commissioner Greg Anderson expressed frustration with the repeated delays, saying that the city was failing to act to address Austin’s housing crisis. It’s this kind of regulatory behavior, he suggested, that would deter developers around the country from building housing in Austin.

Other commissioners seemed content to defer to staff and worried about setting up the expectation for action at a certain date, only to postpone again.

Commissioner Karen McGraw wanted to know whether staffers would have their recommendation in place before or after they hold the neighborhood meeting.

Assistant Planning and Zoning Director Jerry Rusthoven said he would like to be able to tell neighbors what staff members are “leaning toward” recommending, but would not make an official recommendation until hearing their input.

The commission voted 7-3 to postpone indefinitely, with Anderson and commissioners Conor Kenny and Jeffrey Thompson in dissent. Commissioners James Schissler and Fayez Kazi have recused themselves from the case because of a business relationship with the applicant.

Photo by Jack Craver.

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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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