Monday, June 29, 2020 by Nina Hernandez

Two Montopolis rezoning cases move forward

The battle over a group of Montopolis rezoning cases continued at the Planning Commission last Tuesday. One of the cases – 1.32 acres at 200 Montopolis Drive and 6206 Clovis – passed on consent, and three others were postponed. After a lengthy discussion, the commission approved rezoning 508 Kemp St. from Family Residence (SF-3) to Townhouse & Condominium Residence (SF-6) against staff’s recommendation.

The cases have raised concern from neighborhood advocates that the character of Montopolis will be forever changed. Montopolis resident and historian Fred McGhee said he wasn’t surprised by the commission’s vote on the Kemp site, and that he no longer sees any point in trying to rationalize with the commission. However, he said he expects that the neighborhood’s petition will be validated. If so, nine City Council members will need to support the zoning change instead of the usual simple majority of six votes.

“They’re going to support developer interests in every case,” McGhee told the Austin Monitor. “Developers have gotten very good at using excuses and pretenses to justify destruction of our communities.”

He noted that staff recommended against the SF-6 zoning on the basis that Kemp Street is located internally to the neighborhood and does not have easy access to a major thoroughfare. Staff also cited Housing and Neighborhood Policy 11, which states the city should “protect neighborhood character by directing growth to areas of change” and that “new and infill development should be sensitive to the predominant character of these communities.”

“The single biggest weapon we have is the zoning petition,” McGhee said. “We have the right to valid petition zoning cases. We are going to exercise that right in this case. We’re just private citizens fighting to preserve our way of life.”

McGhee has a history of advocating against development of this lot. Last year, he and fellow East Austin advocate Susana Almanza urged the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs to reject a housing tax credit project at the site.

Leah Bojo, representative for the applicant, told the commission that the rezoning would merely allow for more “flexibility” in the site plan than what is allowed under SF-3.

Commissioner Greg Anderson acknowledged that staff recommended against approving the change to SF-6, but said, “I just think staff got it wrong this time. And that happens.” He called SF-3 “lousy, lousy zoning” because it requires a lot of land and has restrictions – for instance, a driveway requirement – that make building difficult.

He applauded the applicant for including one income-restricted unit at 60 percent of the median family income, as well as for allowing community use of a “magnificent” view on the west end of the property.

“There’s a group of people over there that pretty much feel it’s their job to stand up and be against housing,” Anderson told the Monitor. “We’ve made housing so difficult in so many places for so long. We have to be able to get more housing units.”

Commissioner Todd Shaw disagreed, saying he had again reviewed the University of Texas study on gentrification in Austin and noted Montopolis is on its list of the most vulnerable areas in Austin.

“This is the most vulnerable area, and we have several cases in this area,” he said. “It will be interesting to see if this commission will be the commission that condo-izes East Austin and this area. Because we’re starting on that path.”

Now, McGhee and the Montopolis Neighborhood Contact Team will turn their attention to forcing a supermajority vote of City Council to approve the cases through the valid petition.

“We were the place that people came for refuge when they were kicked out of Austin,” McGhee said. “And now they want to come for us? We’re not going to take that sitting down. We’re going to fight.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

Montopolis: An East Austin neighborhood bounded by Grove Street to the west, Texas State Highway 71 to the south and the Southeast Austin neighborhood and U.S. Route 183 to the east. It is located in District 3.

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