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Planning Commission approves Ben White rezoning request despite staff concerns

Wednesday, August 19, 2020 by Nina Hernandez

At its meeting last week, the Planning Commission unanimously approved a request to rezone 7135 E. Ben White from Limited Industrial Services (LI) to Multifamily Residence Moderate-High Density (MF-4). The commission approved the application despite staff concerns that the project would continue a trend of the city losing industrial sites.

The site was zoned industrial in October 2002 when the Southeast Combined Neighborhood Plan was adopted. Carson Creek extends through the south portion, to the east are industrial and a commercial park, to the south is a data center within the Metz Center development, and a hotel and an office building lie to the west.

The applicant is proposing MF-4 zoning in order to build up to 375 apartment units, and plans to dedicate 16.6 acres to the south as public park.

The Southeast Combined Neighborhood Plan Contact Team and the Los Arboles Homeowners Association provided letters of support. Los Arboles noted that the applicant has promised 10 percent of the units will be affordable to families making 80 percent of the median family income. At the meeting, David Hartman, agent for the applicant, announced the developer would go further and do 5 percent at 60 percent MFI and 5 percent at 80 percent MFI.

“Allowing residential use at 7135 E Ben White would balance all of the industry and give workers an opportunity to live close to where they work,” the Los Arboles letter reads.

The contact team only requested that the developer add a guarantee to codify the discount rates to Del Valle and Austin ISDs, charter schools KIPP and IDEA, and Austin-Bergstrom airport employees.

“The staff is not able to recommend the applicant’s rezoning request,” case manager Wendy Rhoades said. “We are recommending maintaining LI-NP zoning. Rezoning would continue the trend of reducing the amount of industrial acreage. Adding residential uses could result in the loss of more industrial uses. Industrial uses do not support residential units.”

Ultimately, the commission approved the request, and a corresponding amendment to the neighborhood plan, unanimously. While commissioners understood the reluctance to lose industrial use, they sided with the need for housing in this case.

“While I am concerned about some of the loss of industrial land, a good chunk of this site remains industrial, and it’s the part of the site that’s actually adjacent to the other limited industrial in the area,” Chair Conor Kenny said. “I think it’s a really good project and I’m glad to see the green space preserved there along the creek.”

Commissioner Greg Anderson said that because of the city’s failure to adopt a new Land Development Code, there are few lots suitable for housing and what few there were have already been picked over. As a result, he said, the city will continue to see proposals in different places – like on highways – than we’re used to.

“Staff has been trying for years to get us a new Land Development Code,” he said. “There are thousands of parcels of land in the city that are desperate to be housing. On great bus lines, on major corridors, and a lot of places that make more sense instead of a highway. And we can’t do it because we have rules like compatibility and a thousand other rules to prevent a lot of parcels that really should be housing from being housing.”

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