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Planning Commission punts MLK zoning case so applicant can work with neighbors

Thursday, June 25, 2020 by Nina Hernandez

This story has been corrected to reflect a reconsideration of the case by the Planning Commission at the end of its meeting.

The Planning Commission voted at its Tuesday meeting to postpone consideration of a zoning change for 5201 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. so that the applicant could continue to work with Travis Audubon, which has a nature preserve next door.

The applicant had initially requested MF-6, which is intended for multifamily and group residential use.

Staffers countered the applicant’s request for MF-6 by recommending MF-3, noting that MF-6 is usually reserved for properties along highways and major arterials. MF-3, on the other hand, allows for up to 36 units per acre and can be located near supporting transportation and commercial facilities.

Victoria Haase, a representative for applicant Thrower Design, said the area is perfect for MF-6 and fits into the goals of the Imagine Austin plan. The proposal will allow for 200 apartment units, 100 of which will be affordable (at a level affordable to those earning 50 percent of the median family income for five years). It’s a S.M.A.R.T. Housing project that will result in four-story apartment buildings.

“The driving force for the MF-6 request is for dwelling unit density and impervious cover,” Haase said. “Therefore, any zoning district less than MF-6 will result in less housing, and more importantly, less affordable housing.”

Haase said the location, near Springdale and Tannehill, is ideal for increased density.

“We cannot keep losing opportunities to implement the goals of our comprehensive plan,” she said. “And while staff argues that the conditions of MLK are a limiting factor to gaining this level of density, I implore you to consider that if we continue to use this reasoning when making land use decisions, our city is going to fall further and further behind.”

Nicole Netherton, executive director of Travis Audubon, spoke against the MF-6 zoning, noting the project’s proximity to the organization’s Blair Woods Nature Preserve.

“Our main opposition to MF-6 concerns the high density and impervious cover for surface parking,” Netherton said. “Blair Woods is home to Coleman Springs. The possibility of flooding and pollution of this water source from runoff from the proposed 80 percent impervious cover is a huge concern for the overall health of the preserve.”

Commissioner Greg Anderson said there would be about a 15 percent difference in impervious cover with the MF-6 zoning, but it would increase the units possible by 150. “It’s a big no-brainer for me,” he said.

Commissioner Rob Schneider spoke in opposition, saying the concern from the Audubon society gives him pause.

“I would likely support it if there was some sort of restrictive covenant in place or some sort of agreement with Audubon that helped guide what will actually be built on the site, and minimize the impact on the springs,” he said. “But until I have some assurance that that’s the case, I can’t support it.”

Commissioner Patrick Howard argued that the commission should prioritize affordable housing as Austin continues to grow.

“We have to consider things differently,” he said. “And I know there are always concerns about the integrity of the existing neighborhood and what that means, but we have to think differently about those things. And I think this is ideally where you would want to have affordable housing. It’s difficult to suggest otherwise.”

The commission initially voted to support staff’s MF-3 proposal, but later decided to reconsider and allow the applicant more time to work out the details with Travis Audubon.

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