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Council OKs ‘Domain on Riverside’ on first reading

Friday, August 9, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

City Council sided with the Planning Commission Thursday in approving a first reading of a request to rezone five tracts of land comprising nearly 100 acres to accommodate the mixed-use development project once known as Project Catalyst, now known as 4700 Riverside and widely nicknamed the “Domain on Riverside”.

Though the afternoon public hearing was fairly sedate, six individuals were arrested Thursday morning at City Hall while protesting the project. Five of those individuals were charged with disrupting a meeting and another was charged with assault by contact. A statement released Thursday from the group Defend Our Hoodz, which has been involved in prior police action over the case, stated the group’s intention not to “observe (the city’s) decorum while our families are being evicted, vulnerable communities like immigrants and refugees are being hunted, and this city becomes a place that only the rich techies at Oracle can afford.”

For his part, Council Member Pio Renteria blamed the lack of affordability on limited housing supply in a growing city. In support of the rezoning, he said the problem will only get worse if the city doesn’t take every opportunity it gets to build affordable housing.

Council Member Greg Casar spoke out against a move to pass the case outright on Thursday. Noting The Grove, a similar mixed-use development in West Austin that never threatened to displace anyone, was deliberated on the dais for over six months, Casar said the idea of swiftly approving a proposal that would displace people “just smacks of inequity.” He suggested instead that Council pass it only on first reading while continuing deliberations on ways to better guarantee affordable housing at the site.

In the end, Council approved the zoning on first reading in a vote of 9-2, with Garza and Casar voting against the request. The item will return to Council at its Aug. 22 meeting for further consideration.

Michael Whellan, who was representing the applicant, predicted that rejecting the zoning request could eventually lead to worse outcomes than those feared by the community and the Council members. Were the site to be redeveloped today, he said, “existing zoning would ensure a suburban-style, lower-density, high-cost development that is (automobile-dependent) with no affordable units. In contrast, we would like to provide the type of walkable, mixed-use, transit-oriented project envisioned in Imagine Austin and in our other city plans.”

Rachel Leming, a student who lives at the site, agreed with much of the community that the applicant’s proposal is worrying despite any plans to improve the neighborhood.

“Austin has a lack of affordably priced housing as it is,” she said, “and you’re about to tear down some of the only affordably priced housing that’s left in town.”

With around 60 percent of the site’s units occupied by students, Leming also objected to holding the public hearing when so many students are away for summer break. “It’s not okay,” she concluded.

In its approval, Council voted against the recommendation of city staff to exclusively grant the zoning requests for portions of the site within a half-mile of the intersection at East Riverside Drive and South Pleasant Valley Road, favoring instead the applicant’s request that all five tracts be rezoned from East Riverside Corridor (ERC) district-Neighborhood Mixed-Use (NMU) and Urban Residential (UR) subdistricts to East Riverside Corridor (ERC) district zoning with Corridor Mixed-Use (CMU) subdistrict zoning.

Staffers drafted an amended plan to maintain the exclusively residential zoning for 1.5 of the property tracts to remain consistent with the 2013 East Riverside Corridor Regulating Plan. However, with the entire development located inside an Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan activity center, Council was less concerned about the proposed mix of uses than with the real possibility that granting the rezoning would lead to increased entitlements along East Riverside, yet not secure any affordable housing units.

The requested zoning designations would increase height limits across the entire site from 40 to 60 feet. The applicant has proposed a plan to go well above the 60-foot cap by taking advantage of the city’s density bonus programs, which increase entitlements in exchange for affordable housing units. To do that, though, the base zoning needs to first allow for 60 feet.

While the applicant apparently plans to take advantage of the density bonus program, as Council Member Jimmy Flannigan noted, Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza stressed that rezoning the site could backfire if the applicant decides not to go forward with the plan and the site’s 1,308 market-affordable units were then redeveloped without any guarantee of income-restricted housing to take their place.

In addition to roughly 4 million square feet of office space, 435,000 square feet of commercial space and 600 hotel rooms, the site plan features construction of 4,709 multifamily housing units, including 400 to 565 income-restricted units accessible to households earning 60 percent of the median family income.

Acknowledging that the city needs affordable housing, Casar said the East Riverside neighborhood has many of the city’s lowest-income residents and many of them are currently living in the older affordable units that would be redeveloped by this proposal. He said the city can reach its housing goals through broad development reform, and without demolishing existing affordable multifamily housing.

This story has been changed since publication to update the number of arrests. Photo by Jo Clifton.

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