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Despite ‘fuzzy’ answers, Planning Commission approves 4700 E. Riverside project

Wednesday, June 12, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

After three hours of discussion and deliberation against the backdrop of incessant shouting and profanities from members of Defend Our Hoodz, the Planning Commission voted 7-4 to forgo staff’s recommendation and approve the rezoning of the five tracts composing 4700 E. Riverside, as requested by the applicant, Presidium Group.

In a nutshell, the applicant’s rezoning request would clear the current apartment complexes, the Ballpark North, Town Lake, and the Quad East, West and South, which are 60 percent student-occupied, and allow for the construction of 4,709 multifamily units, 600 hotel rooms, 4 million square feet of office space and 435,000 square feet of ground-floor commercial space.

The five tracts that make up the 97-acre property are currently zoned East Riverside Corridor (ERC) district-Neighborhood Mixed Use (NMU) and Urban Residential (UR) subdistricts. The request before the Planning Commission was to change that zoning to East Riverside Corridor (ERC) district-Corridor Mixed Use (CMU) subdistrict.

The change in zoning will allow the developer to build up to 160 feet, approximately 13 stories, of mixed-use development that will have 400 to 565 affordable units on-site.

City staff recommended the zoning change but only within a half mile of the Riverside Drive and Pleasant Valley Road intersection, which is in accordance with the 2013 East Riverside Corridor Regulating Plan. That would, however, reduce the number of income-restricted affordable units to between 200 and 334.

Opponents of the proposal noted that there are already 1,308 affordable units on-site. By razing them to the ground, local activist Susana Almanza noted, “This is a major case of gentrification.”

The current apartments are market rate and are not income-restricted. With the Presidium proposal, the affordable units will be income-restricted at 60 percent MFI.

Although commissioners lauded the dense housing option that incorporated affordable housing, several expressed concerns about the residents who are currently in the apartments.

Michael Whellan, who was representing the applicant, told the commission that the developer would work toward a relocation and a right-to-return policy, something Council has considered implementing for a while. Whellan said residents who had been in the complex three years or more would be eligible for right-to-return. All residents are eligible for relocation at the developer’s expense. As for the current number of qualified residents, “We know that at this point, a little over 80 percent are there for two years or less,” he said.

Providing affordable units is contingent upon the developer taking advantage of the density bonus, which under the East Riverside Corridor Regulating Plan requires, for 50 percent of the bonus area, 1 square foot of affordable housing for every 4 square feet in a residential structure.

Even if Presidium is entitled to that bonus, Jerry Rusthoven, assistant director with the Planning and Zoning Department, explained, “We cannot require them to take advantage of the bonus.”

Unsettled by that revelation, Commissioner Patricia Seeger said she had “concern about not having true mixed-use” and that “it could turn out to be all commercial even though it’s meant to be mixed-use. Things happen.” She was particularly worried about all the affordable housing being lumped together in a less desirable part of the development and the prime real estate that faces Guerrero Park being left for commercial and hotel use.

Guerrero Park itself raised a few eyebrows. In prior discussions of the project, Upal Barua, a review manager with the Transportation Department, indicated that in order for the development to meet transportation demand management, Lakeshore Boulevard, which runs through the project, would need to take 11,000 square feet of parkland from Roy G. Guerrero Park.

Several speakers, including Linda Guerrero, the chair of the Environmental Commission, came to express their concerns about giving up public parkland to private development. However, Whellan said that the developer’s project engineer was able to design a road to fit within the existing 90-foot right of way.

The East Riverside/Oltorf Combined Neighborhood Plan Contact Team echoed several of these concerns, although they were in support of the project. Malcolm Yeatts, the chair of EROC, laid out the contact team’s conditional support of the project, which hinged on the following five conditions. The applicant and the city must: 1) be willing to ensure that no stormwater from the development enters Country Club Creek; 2) pay to reroute Country Creek Trail where it goes through the property; 3) create an easement along Wickersham Lane for public use; 4) vacate street right of way within Guerrero Park east of Wickersham Lane; and 5) purchase the water quality land just south of Guerrero Park.

Whellan said that while he was amenable to the requests made by the contact team and that much of this would be taken care of by the applicant’s commitment to 14 acres of parkland in the flood plain and critical water quality zone, he was unable to commit to the conditions, as there still need to be discussions with the city on how to tackle drainage and parkland.

Still, the commission felt that the answers were too full of ifs and maybes.

“I feel like some of these questions are answered in a fuzzy way,” Commissioner Robert Schneider remarked.

Although the commission briefly considered postponing the case for two weeks to wait for staff and the applicant to provide more information, in the end, they chose to call the question.

“I just don’t think we’re going to have a lot more answers in two weeks,” said Commissioner Conor Kenny.

To compensate for what commissioners felt were unsatisfactory answers to some of their questions, they voted to approve the upzoning of all five tracts but to do so in concert with the chair writing a letter to Council explicitly outlining their concerns and asking them to address the EROC neighborhood contact team’s five conditions.

“This site is going away as market affordable housing. Everyone knows that,” said Kenny. “We have to be cognizant of the gentrification that this spurs.”

At the vote, commissioners Patricia Seeger and Karen McGraw voted against the motion. Commissioners Fayez Kazi and James Schissler were off the dais.

This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that a relocation allowance and assistance would be offered to all residents. Photo by Jessi Devenyns.

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