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Montopolis rezonings draw community ire

Tuesday, June 23, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

The Planning Commission is scheduled to hear a cluster of five development cases in Montopolis today, and it hasn’t escaped the notice of community leaders.

Eight separate addresses covering more than 10 acres of the Southeast Austin neighborhood are seeking a change from Family Residence (SF-3) to Townhouse & Condominium Residence (SF-6) zoning: 3.12 acres at 1013 and 1017 Montopolis Drive, 1.32 acres at 200 Montopolis Drive and 6206 Clovis St., 2.16 acres at 508 Kemp St., 2.9 acres at 316 Saxon Lane and 6328 El Mirando St., and 1.32 acres at 200 Montopolis Drive and 6206 Clovis St.

The Montopolis Neighborhood Plan Contact Team and neighborhood leaders oppose the changes, and in a press conference held at the Monotopolis Negro School on Juneteenth, urged the Planning Commission and City Council to deny what they call “recent coordinated efforts to accelerate real estate speculation in one of the most historic and environmentally sensitive parts of Austin.”

“They have submitted a coordinated suite of upzonings that would eradicate our neighborhood’s single-family culture,” Montopolis resident and historian Fred McGhee said. “We’re not stupid, we know what we have. Just because you now think that it’s worth something, we’re supposed to all of a sudden stop thinking that?”

McGhee said he didn’t believe that the neighborhood should be upzoned, especially with “an insane overconcentration of industrial- and commercially-zoned property in our community.”

“We’re fine with people wanting to come into the community, but they need to do it on a family basis, with the existing SF-3 zoning that is in the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan,” he said.

“We can flex to a certain extent, but this is one where we’ve got to say no,” McGhee added. “This is a bright line you cannot cross.”

Agents for the developers told the Austin Monitor that the group of rezonings were not related. Ron Thrower, who is representing the owners of all but one of the Montopolis projects on today’s agenda, told the Monitor it was “absolutely not” a concerted effort to redevelop the neighborhood and stressed that there was no common ownership across his four cases. Leah Bojo, who represents the fifth case with the Drenner Group, confirmed this was true in her case as well.

Bojo explained that the change in zoning would allow a “lot more flexibility with site design” for the property at 508 Kemp St., and were looking at building 25-30 units.

“We have a lot of big trees that we are saving and we have some grading and topographical features to work around, so condo residential use lets you work around those things more than subdivisions,” Bojo said. “You could subdivide it, and probably you would end up with fewer, larger lots with larger structures. What we are looking to do is to build more, smaller homes.”

“This condo residential zoning tool is important to give the flexibility to build more ‘missing middle’-like development. In our current code, that means rezone to SF-6,” Bojo said. “That’s really what we’re after – some flexibility so we can build something different than large single-family homes.”

Thrower agreed with that philosophy.

“There’s always the opportunity to develop the property under the existing zoning, but SF-6 offers compatibility with surrounding SF-3, it offers flexibility in terms of design of developable areas, it offers greater protection for trees,” said Thrower. “The density is not much different than the surrounding land, it’s not much different than SF-3. It’s just to provide diversity of housing.”

Thrower told the Monitor he had “respectfully declined” to meet to discuss the changes in person due to the pandemic, but would continue to try to work with the neighborhood virtually and through mailers. “To date, we have not heard from anybody,” he said, though he had been in contact with some of the contact team leaders. Bojo did attend a recent meeting held at a Central Health clinic to discuss the projects.

Those opposed to the project say they have gathered enough signatures for a valid petition against each of the rezonings. If the petition is validated, nine City Council members will need to support the zoning changes, instead of the usual six votes that are required.

“If these zoning changes go through, it’s over,” McGhee said. “We have already allowed insane levels of development. … We’re not going to now allow individual real estate speculators to go after our single-family homes. It’s just not going to happen.”

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