Friday, July 17, 2020 by Nina Hernandez

Planning Commission approves rezoning for MLK property despite concerns over process

The Planning Commission voted at its Tuesday meeting to recommend a zoning change for 5201 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. from Family Residence (SF-3) to Multifamily Residence Medium Density (MF-3).

The applicant initially requested Multifamily Residence Highest Density (MF-6), but staff recommended MF-3 because the property is not on a highway or major arterial. The Travis Audubon Society warned the commission that MF-6 would put the organization’s nature preserve, which sits next door to the property, at risk.

The commission initially voted to recommend MF-3, but later reconsidered in order to allow more time for the applicant to work with Travis Audubon on a solution to the water quality concerns.

On Tuesday, senior planner Heather Chaffin reported that MF-6 was “off the table” because the applicant had asked to modify the original zoning request to MF-3. Once an applicant has requested a modification to the zoning application, it can’t go higher than the new request.

Victoria Haase, agent for applicant Ryan Walker, said she had met with Travis Audubon since the last Planning Commission meeting and tried to come up with a solution to ease the conservation organization’s concerns about too much density next door. (Audubon is in favor of MF-3 zoning for the site.)

“In the end, the property owner decided they didn’t want to fight the uphill battle, and decided to go with the staff recommendation of MF-3,” Haase said.

Adam Sharp of the Stonegate Neighborhood Association expressed dismay on behalf of his neighbors that MF-6 was even on the table after last month’s meeting.

“It’s been a baffling few weeks for us to try and understand what’s going on,” Sharp said. “At first, we thought the commission had denied the MF-6 designation, only to find out at the four hour and 45 minute mark of the meeting that this application was inexplicably brought up for a re-vote, a move that can only be described as sketchy.”

Sharp said that the applicant’s decision last Friday to modify the request to MF-3 is a step in the right direction, but the neighbors still have questions that they would like answered. The neighbors are still unsure what MF-3 will ultimately allow, and they would also like to know if the current applicant, Walker, would be developing the property himself or if he was representing a client in the rezoning.

Commissioner James Shieh said the project, being on a major street like East MLK and mostly undeveloped, is in an ideal place to put more density. “At least we’re going to be putting density where it needs to be,” he concluded.

Speaking against, Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido said she had objections based on the process. For one, she said, the reconsideration for this case was “problematic” because there was no new evidence presented to support hearing the case again.

Secondly, she is concerned about what the applicant is proposing and how staffers are choosing to interpret the requirements around mixed residential.

“The neighborhood plan is very clear,” Llanes Pulido said. “And the neighborhood plan actually does require that 50 percent be single family. The justification for multifamily being interpreted just like mixed residential, as I heard from Ms. Chaffin, I’m not sold on that. I don’t buy it.”

She continued: “I think if we keep up with shenanigans like this, we’re asking for a lawsuit.”

Map courtesy of Google Maps.

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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.

SMART housing: Safe, mixed-income, accessible, reasonably-priced, transit-oriented housing.

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