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Planning Commission rebukes city staff in Blackland rezoning

Thursday, March 7, 2019 by Jack Craver

The Planning Commission voted to endorse five townhouses just south of Manor Road despite a recommendation from city staff against the development.

The property at 2107 Alamo St. is currently occupied by an aging duplex. The owner, Anmol Mehra, wants to demolish the existing structure and replace it with five townhouses. He has promised to dedicate one of the townhouses to the Blackland Community Development Corporation, a neighborhood group that oversees a portfolio of 47 income-restricted units that account for 20 percent of the homes in the Blackland neighborhood, which is located just east of Interstate 35, west of Chestnut Street, north of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and south of Manor Road.

To move forward with the project, the developer needed the property rezoned from single-family use (SF-3) to multifamily (MF-4). The project also required a change to the Upper Boggy Creek Neighborhood Plan, which was adopted in 2002 and cited the preservation of single-family character as one of its chief objectives.

In a memo, staffers from the Planning and Zoning Department wrote that the new development would help further affordable housing, a top priority in the neighborhood plan that city leaders regularly trumpet as Austin’s most pressing need. Nevertheless, staff decided against a recommendation, citing the neighborhood plan’s goal of preserving the single-family character of the neighborhood. This was despite the fact that the Upper Boggy Creek Neighborhood Plan contact team voted 9-0 (with one abstention) to approve the rezoning.

“I think the neighborhood has spoken,” said Lottie Dailey, president of the Blackland Neighborhood Association, which voted 18-14 to support the rezoning.

A handful of neighbors attended the meeting in opposition, decrying the increase in density and arguing that the small lot could not handle so much housing and that surrounding streets were already overburdened with traffic.

“Our small neighborhood is already doing more than many others in addressing the city’s housing pressures,” said Jada Garrison.

Although she was not at the meeting Tuesday, former Council Member Ora Houston, who is a resident of the neighborhood, also submitted a comment objecting to the plan, citing the neighborhood plan. It was her opposition that prompted staff to oppose the project, theorized Bo McCarver, chair of the board of the Blackland CDC, in a recent interview on the Austin Monitor’s weekly radio program.

Opponents of the project consistently said that granting the rezoning would establish a precedent of allowing multifamily projects in the interior of the traditionally single-family neighborhood.

When it was his turn to give a rebuttal, Glen Coleman, an agent for the developer, embraced the allegation: “I agree that this sets a precedent. And I think you should set a precedent.”

In addition to the one income-restricted unit, which will be reserved for residents at 60 percent of the area median family income ($51,600 for a four-person household), the four other two-bedroom, two-bathroom units will be significantly cheaper than a typical new single-family home in the area, said Coleman. Without the zoning request, all the neighborhood would get is one very expensive house.

“I think it would be a tragedy if we built one giant unit across from a basketball court and a community garden,” he said, referring to the Alamo Community Garden and Alamo Pocket Park.

“We think there’s an appetite for families who would rather put that money into a house than a car and be able to walk to work, bike to work, scooter to work,” Coleman added later.

Few members of the Planning Commission were convinced by staffers’ arguments against the project. Commissioner Conor Kenny said he was surprised that staff’s recommendation made no mention of the city’s Strategic Housing Blueprint, which calls for the creation of 135,000 new housing units over the next decade, including 60,000 targeting low-income households. The proposed project also aligned with many of the goals of Imagine Austin, the city’s comprehensive plan, such as adding density near transit corridors and parks.

“This fits every criteria inside the book except compatibility,” said Kenny.

Commissioner Greg Anderson similarly said he was “disappointed” by staff’s recommendation, but laid most of the blame on the code.

“This is another great zoning case to remind us how terrible our land development code is,” said Anderson, who lauded the site as ideal for dense housing.

The commission ultimately approved the rezoning 8-3-1, with commissioners Karen McGraw, Patricia Seeger and Todd Shaw voting against and Chair James Shieh abstaining. Commissioner Angela De Hoyos Hart is on maternity leave.

The rezoning must now be approved by City Council.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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