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Council OKs ‘Domain on Riverside’

Monday, October 21, 2019 by Elizabeth Pagano

After months of combative public hearings, City Council has approved the vast, controversial Eastside development nicknamed the “Domain on Riverside.”

The 97-acre project promises to bring housing, retail, restaurants and offices to Riverside Drive and Pleasant Valley Boulevard. But the development will come at the expense of five existing apartment complexes that offer close-in affordable housing. At the final Council hearing Thursday, residents from those complexes offered emotional testimony about the upcoming demolition of their homes and expressed fear that they would not be able to find other places to live.

Sophia Donnelly was one of the residents who showed up to share her fears that the development would displace “thousands of renters, working-class people, families, refugees and students.”

“I live on South Pleasant Valley near Riverside with my 17-year-old son, and I work two jobs and I have no car,” said Donnelly. “I’m just really tired; I don’t feel like Austin has a place for just poor, regular people anymore. Everyone has to be rich.”

The new development, 4700 East Riverside, will be built in phases over the next two decades. In an attempt to address concerns about replacing existing affordable housing with upscale homes, developers have said that 400-565 housing units will be affordable for those making 60 percent of Austin’s median family income. Currently, that figure is $56,760 for a family of four.

Attorney Michael Whellan, who was representing the developers, told Council, “This would be the largest affordable housing commitment in a private development in the urban core.”

“I think the bottom line, something that gets lost in the conversation, is that you’re not ever going to have 100 percent affordable housing,” Whellan said. “It doesn’t exist there now. About 25 percent are at market. More are going to be market if they get upgraded. But what will happen is, it will just become high-end condos with no affordability, which is exactly what nobody in this room, including myself, would like to see. I think somebody said it well: We can’t freeze this site in amber. These (apartment complexes) are deteriorating products and the redevelopment is going to happen. It’s already happening directly next door to us and all around us. We just need to be sure that we lock in this affordability right now and do something valuable that I think is a meaningful community benefit with housing our homeless through legitimate process with ECHO.”

A last-minute promise to house 100 homeless Austinites and provide $1.75 million over five years for health care and other supportive services for those residents through ECHO (Ending Community Homelessness Coalition) did not appear to sway many of those opposing the project.

Casa Marianella director Jennifer Long told Council that her organization, which aids displaced immigrants who do not have homes, this year placed 100 people in some of the apartments slated for demolition.

“I’ve been doing this work for 35 years. We’re living on a shrinking island here in Austin of affordable housing. It used to be pretty easy back in the ’80s to find an affordable place for someone to live, but at this time our very best resource are the quad apartments,” said Long. “I’m sad that there’s not a way to protect old affordable housing, that there’s only talk of new housing because almost by definition new housing isn’t affordable.”

“I ask your compassion for the people who are living in the quad apartments. We’re doing an excellent job receiving our people and very desperately need affordable housing that’s literally affordable,” she said.

Council Member Greg Casar continued his unbroken streak of voting against the project. He explained, “I know this is a hard one, but in my view, if we want to keep our community as diverse as possible and try to have working-class and middle-class families in the city, we both must build more housing and fight against displacement by not upzoning some of these older multifamily places. We can and have to do both.”

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, on the other hand, voted in favor of the rezoning all three readings. He explained his perspective, saying, “What is there today will not be there tomorrow whether or not we vote yes or no.”

“I voted yes on this on first and second reading. I’ll be voting yes again today because I think we have to be smart about how we lock in these long-term affordability agreements,” he said. “This is just a difficult decision for the folks who live there now. I can imagine it would be difficult if the duplex that I’m half renting were to be redeveloped. But if it’s going to get redeveloped, I’d rather do it with the community benefits locked in.”

In the end, Council approved the project in a vote of 6-3-1, with Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and Council members Leslie Pool and Casar voting in opposition. Council Member Kathie Tovo was absent for the vote.

Council Member Alison Alter, who had previously voted against the project, opted to abstain for this final vote. She explained that she did not want her vote against the project viewed as an endorsement of the tactics employed by Defend Our Hoodz. In recent weeks, the group has shown up at the homes of advocates and Council members. During the hearing, their protest outside of City Hall could be heard over the discussion.

“Coming to Council to express your concerns and even disdain for items is appropriate. Egging someone’s house is not. Trying to keep someone from voting a certain way is not appropriate. As a Council, we absolutely do not condone and in fact we condemn this behavior. I voted no on second reading,” said Alter. “I have a lot of concerns about this development, but I’m going to be abstaining because I’m very uncomfortable. I want to send a message that when behavior like this occurs, it has the opposite impact of persuading policy makers to listen and respond positively.”

Editor’s note: Defend Our Hoodz has clarified that they did not egg Renteria’s home, and do not know who did. A reference to their participation in the act has been removed.

Photo by Matthew Rutledge made available through a Creative Commons license.

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