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Govalle neighborhood looks for compromise in affordable housing project

Wednesday, April 29, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

The city of Austin owns 5 acres of land on three adjacent properties at 1127-1131 Tillery St. Two of those acres are home to a grove of pecan trees that some in the neighborhood worry are in danger of being felled in order to construct affordable housing units.

The Austin Housing Finance Corporation is working on putting together a public solicitation for proposals to develop the properties on Tillery Street. While the proposal request will be sent out in June, there are no specifics yet as to the requirement, according to a spokesperson from the AHFC.

However, the city has outlined its big-picture goals for the 5-acre parcel, hoping to develop the land in such a way that it maximizes the number of affordable and multi-bedroom units while minimizing the amount the city needs to subsidize the affordable units.

The lots are currently zoned single family (SF-3), which permits single-family residences or duplexes on 5,750-square-foot tracts. On 5 acres, this amounts to 15 units if they are all duplexes. Neighbors worry that maximizing the number of units and working toward City Council’s goal of constructing 6,295 affordable units in District 3 puts the pecan grove in jeopardy.

“It’s a false dichotomy to separate preservation of trees … against affordable housing. Both can exist together and that’s what everyone I’ve talked to in the neighborhood wants,” Govalle resident Brigitte Brieschke told the Austin Monitor.

The Govalle Neighborhood Association is proposing MF-2 zoning for the property, which allows for 23 units per acre, on the land surrounding the pecan grove. The neighborhood clearly stated that it is willing to pursue this compromise “in exchange for preserving the pecan grove as open space.”

Jessica Eley, the co-chair of the neighborhood group, told the Monitor that dozens of residents attended the latest public meeting on April 21 to voice their support for the project. “At a minimum, we want that protected as open space,” she said. Years ago, she said, the neighborhood filed a petition to have the pecan grove preserved as a park, but, “It didn’t go anywhere.”

Still, the Govalle neighborhood continues to push for the preservation of the grove, which Eley said appears to be gaining some traction. “At the meeting, they hinted heavily … they said things like they’re in talks with the Parks and Recreation Department,” she told the Monitor. “(It) really kind of led us to believe that there’s a chance we might get a park, which would be awesome.”

An AHFC spokesperson told the Monitor, “The city acknowledges the residents’ concerns and is committed to finding an approach that balances the aesthetic of the grove along with the need for the building of affordable housing for low-income households in Austin.”

According to Eley and Brieschke, preserving the grove is about more than aesthetics. It is a place for outdoor recreation, psychological nourishment and a financial resource – people collect the pecans to sell them.

At the meeting, the neighborhood emphasized its support for the trees as well as for the planned affordable housing. However, Brieschke said residents are waiting to see how their request for tree preservation is implemented. “It’s surprising that you have to make a lot of noise to get a progressive city like Austin to recognize that we need to save trees,” she said.

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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