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Planning Commission debates transportation corridors and density

Monday, August 26, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

Does an extra 0.05 miles from a transportation corridor make a difference when it comes to deciding the appropriate level of density for a property?

The Planning Commission found itself pondering this question at its Aug. 13 meeting while deliberating on rezoning the properties at 4507 and 4511 Vinson Drive from single-family residential (SF-3) to high-density single-family (SF-6).

Future land use maps in Austin encourage properties within 0.25 miles from a transportation corridor to develop with increased density. The properties on Vinson Drive, which currently allow for eight single-family residences, are 0.3 miles from the South First Street corridor.

“This falls within that area, so I think this is really relevant for us to see (more density),” said Commissioner Conor Kenny.

Commissioner Todd Shaw agreed that the difference between what the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan requires for density and the actual distance of the Vinson Drive properties from South First Street was negligible, but that connectivity between the site and the major transportation corridor was an issue.

A railroad track borders the northern edge of the property limiting direct access to major arterials. “I just think this is too landlocked to justify this much density,” said Shaw.

The proposed development would include 19 stand-alone condominium units spread across 1.9 acres. Originally the plan called for 16 units and the zoning application was approved on second reading by City Council in 2017, but as a third reading did not occur, the rezoning application expired.

Along with an increase in the number of units, the new design shows the units detached instead of in a connected row house formation. “Bringing this new unit type here is going to bring more opportunities to have a variety,” said Commissioner James Shieh, noting that it was a “good mix to bring into the area.”

Each unit will be between 1,300 and 1,400 square feet with prices ranging from $400,000-$450,000, owner Paul Thiessen told the commissioners.

“I’m not trying to put million-dollar condos here,” Thiessen said.

Commissioner Kenny noted that none of the units will be income-restricted and affordable.

Still, the neighbors expect the units to fill up – to the detriment of the neighborhood. Ray Collins, the chair of the South Manchaca Neighborhood Plan Contact Team, told the commission that the contact team is unanimously opposed to the plan and that the increased density for the lots is as compatible with the neighborhood “as oil is with water.”

He explained that increased density and impervious cover would contribute to flooding in Williamson Creek as well as traffic congestion. In the original zoning case for this property, a conditional overlay limited the driveway exit to St. Elmo Street rather than a single exit on the interior residential street of Vinson Drive.

In this latest iteration, the project will have a driveway exit onto Vinson Drive, but will provide a sidewalk along the street to make it safer for pedestrians and cars to coexist.

With staff support for the proposal, the Planning Commission voted 7-2 to recommend the zoning change. Commissioners Carmen Llanes-Pulido and Todd Shaw voted against the motion. Commissioners Awais Azhar, Patrick Howard, Patricia Seeger, and Robert Schneider were absent.

Llanes-Pulido explained that while connectivity is important, the site falls just outside the limits of the ASMP and therefore the impact on the neighborhood should be weighed in order to “maintain balance” between two interests that are working together as Austin grows.

This story has been changed since publication. Map courtesy of Google Maps.

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