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Planning Commission rejects city’s gradualism in modest rezoning case

Monday, July 29, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

The Planning Commission clashed with city staff Tuesday by voting in favor of a request to rezone two lots at 6501 and 6503 Cannonleague Drive from Family Residence (SF-3) to Urban Family Residence (SF-5).

According to staff, the requested designation could disrupt the character of the South Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan’s residential core, where the site is located, by contrasting with the Family Residence designations of the adjacent lots. Further, since the applicant’s goal is to have a total of six units and the property is large enough, staff suggested subdividing the site into three lots to achieve that goal under the current zoning.

That solution, however, would not allow for the applicant’s desired site configuration. The roughly half-acre site in the Garrison Park neighborhood currently holds two duplexes, which the applicant wishes to demolish in order to construct six detached, 1,500-square-foot condominiums.

The advantage of that solution versus adding a third duplex, said Jim Wittliff, who was representing the applicant, is that the numerous trees grouped in the eastern half of the property could be preserved. While the condos can be built around the tree grove, Wittliff explained, “the rear duplex, just by nature, is going to go where it’s going to go and the trees are going to survive or not survive.”

While both options would lead to six total units, staff said the urban family zoning designation that would be needed to allow for the detached condominiums would not be appropriate for the site. The major issue, said Wendy Rhoades with the Planning and Zoning Department, is the property’s location. Overall, Rhoades said, staff members support a mixture of housing types and zonings such as the one requested, but “not in the middle of a neighborhood.”

Likewise, numerous residents submitted written objections to any proposal that could add more traffic congestion, garbage bins or density to their neighborhood.

Several of the written comments, however, did not demonstrate comprehension of the site proposal. One neighbor objected to the request on the grounds that the two extra units could add between eight and 12 trash cans to the streets. Another resident objected to what she mistakenly understood to be a proposal for a mixed-use development in the residential neighborhood.

Technically, if the Urban Family Residence designation was granted, the site could hold a maximum of 10 units, but Wittliff said that’s not the plan and that the applicant would be comfortable even if the number of units were to be capped at six.

Commissioner Patricia Seeger, seeking to freeze the maximum density at six units, attempted and failed to pass an amendment that would have added a conditional overlay to the Urban Family Residence designation, allowing for the condominium design but nothing more.

While Commissioner Yvette Flores said capping the units at six would likely appease some of the neighbors, Commissioner Conor Kenny said the city’s habit of adding conditional overlays is one of the major issues with the current development code.

Weighing in, Commissioner Greg Anderson said such a cap would be counterproductive. “When the majority of your population cannot afford the average price of a home, we must allow the form of housing to change,” he said. “I hope there are 10 homes here.”

Motioning approval, Kenny clarified that the site is well-situated for the added housing capacity. It’s about half a mile from both a local bus route and a high-frequency bus route and near the potential future location of a bus rapid transit line under the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Project Connect.

“If we are to follow what seems to be the practice of Planning and Zoning,” he said, “the increment of change in the city would be glacial because you would have to depend on all of the houses down the street to get rezoned one at a time before you could reach the middle of a block to add something as simple as a cottage court. We have – and I want to be clear – no hope whatsoever of achieving our transit, our bicycle mode-share, our goals to have people living near parks, if this is the approach we take. It’s just hopeless if that’s the case.”

The motion passed 9-1 with Seeger opposed.

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