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Reworked Kemp Street rezoning continues to draw fire

Thursday, October 15, 2020 by Elizabeth Pagano

Today, Austin City Council will take up a contentious Montopolis zoning case that opponents say will speed gentrification and wreak havoc on a nearby preserve. But supporters of the reworked plan for 508 Kemp St. tout the creation of affordable housing as a new way to employ the city’s Affordability Unlocked tool.

The developer is seeking a zoning change from Family Residence (SF-3) to Townhouse & Condominium Residence (SF-6), which will allow them to build 33 units on the 2-acre lot. Without the change, they could build two homes. However, the developer notes that a subdivision of the land could result in five single-family lots, with two units per lot, resulting in up to 10 larger houses.

There is a valid petition against the case, which means nine City Council members will need to vote in support of the rezoning for it to move forward. In the first vote on the rezoning, Council voted 7-2, with Council members Alison Alter and Kathie Tovo voting in opposition and Council members Leslie Pool and Ann Kitchen abstaining.

The project has changed since it was first presented at the Planning Commission. The builder, 360 Degrees Construction, is now working with Habitat for Humanity. Under the new plan, which uses the city’s Affordability Unlocked development bonus program, 17 of the 33 units will be sold to lower-income homeowners. In partnership with Habitat for Humanity, the two-bedroom homes would be sold at a price of $140,000-$187,000 with the remaining homes to be sold at market value.

The proposed development has garnered a tidal wave of opposition online, with groups like Protect Montopolis, Ecology Austin and the Coalition for Racial Justice urging residents to take action against it. On Wednesday afternoon, opponents gathered at the Montopolis Negro School to speak out against the development.

“No means no,” said Fred McGhee, who is vice president of the Montopolis Neighborhood Association. “What the facts actually indicate is that this is not an affordable housing proposal. It is a proposal that will enrich people from the outside of our community. And it will provide housing for people who do not live here. That is not considered acceptable by us, and quite frankly, we resent the presence of organizations such as Habitat for Humanity to the extent that they decided at the last minute to involve themselves in this project.”

“What we want is a proposal that will work for us – that is of, by and for the community, not of, by and for real-estate developers,” McGhee said. To that end, he forwarded a plan by the Montopolis Community Development Corporation for the site. (McGhee serves as board president for the Montopolis CDC.)

Drenner Group’s Leah Bojo, who is representing the developer, told the Austin Monitor that they were excited to work with Habitat for Humanity, noting the group would otherwise be priced out of buying a lot in the neighborhood.

“By working with a private developer, they are going to be able to get access,” said Bojo, who said she hoped to see such partnerships with nonprofit affordable housing developers in the future. “That seems to have really promising potential.”

Casar was among the Council members who expressed support for the project during Council’s Tuesday work session. He said he would not have supported the original, market-rate proposal for the lot.

“I think it is important for people to know that this is a project where the majority of homes will be Habitat for Humanity homes, with a minority of them being market-rate homes,” he said. “That is housing that we need in the community.”

On Wednesday, opponents countered this claim, saying the project would only accelerate gentrification and noting that many current residents earned less than the 60 to 80 percent median family income price point of the affordable homes.

There are also environmental concerns. Eric Paulus, of Ecology Action of Texas, wrote a letter to City Council detailing those concerns. Ecology Action owns the adjacent property, which was once the poorly regulated Grove Landfill.

“The landfill was never properly sited or capped and is known to have several contaminants in the soil and groundwater below,” Paulus wrote. “After the city stopped municipal dumping here in 1970 they abandoned it, yet the property was used by contractors to dump all sorts of materials for nearly 30 years afterwards, including hazardous materials like asbestos, toxic chemicals, car batteries, medical waste, and literally tons of asphalt shingles.”

Paulus told the Austin Monitor that the landfill was poorly capped and susceptible to erosion that would be exacerbated by the increased impervious cover of the new development.

“The cap is most vulnerable on city (right of way) property between the creek and 508 Kemp St. and this is also where the topography of the 508 Kemp lot naturally drains. However, on the back of 508 Kemp is currently a closed canopy forest. Closed canopy forests have the opposite effect of impervious cover by helping to greatly slow and absorb water during rain events thus preventing erosion,” he wrote. “Replacing this dense forest with a large amount of impervious cover is a recipe for disaster and could result in very costly and difficult clean-up efforts in the future, a future we know will see larger volume rain events.”

Casar confirmed to the Monitor that he will make a motion at today’s meeting to add a conditional overlay to the zoning that will require a 45-foot rear setback on the property, creating an environmental buffer.

Planning and Development Review Department staffers do not support the rezoning on the basis that the more intense zoning the developers are seeking would be more appropriate on a larger road or the periphery of the neighborhood, according to the staff report.

Though Casar drew a considerable amount of heat at Wednesday’s press conference, the development is in Council Member Pio Renteria’s District 3. Renteria said he would also be supporting the project on Thursday, despite the petition and staffers’ recommendation.

“It’s a great opportunity. If we do not pass this, then we’re just going to see a lot of single-family housing, and they’re not going to be in reach of the lower-middle-class people, they’re not,” Renteria said.

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