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Council approves Saxon Acres rezoning case in Montopolis

Friday, December 18, 2020 by Jonathan Lee

City Council has approved a rezoning request for the Saxon Acres development in East Austin’s Montopolis neighborhood.

The 3-acre tract at 316 Saxon Lane and 6328 El Mirando St. is now zoned Townhouse & Condominium Residence (SF-6) instead of Family Residence (SF-3). The developer proposes building 34 homes, including two priced at 80 percent of the median family income, though these plans are preliminary.

Several community members condemned the rezoning request and argued that the proposed development would exacerbate gentrification and displacement.

“We’re seeing a lot of displacement over here right now,” neighbor Michelle Teague said at the Council meeting on Dec. 10. “A lot of our residents are really hurting.”

At one point, 21 percent of nearby residents had a signed a petition against the rezoning, which would have forced a Council supermajority in order for the measure to pass. But by the time Council heard the request last Thursday, the petition had only 17 percent of the neighbors’ signatures, making it invalid. A valid petition against rezoning requires the signatures of 20 percent of nearby residents.

Rezoning cases, often hot-button issues, have proved especially controversial in Montopolis. This fall, an intense and lengthy battle over a rezoning case on Kemp Street pushed the developer to withdraw the rezoning request.

The University of Texas Uprooted Project classifies Montopolis, which is a primarily working-class community of color, as being “most vulnerable” to gentrification and displacement.

Council voted 8-2 to rezone the tract. Council Member Pio Renteria made the motion to adopt and spoke in favor: “These are vacant lots, so we’re not displacing anybody. This is an opportunity to have more housing in this area.”

Council Member Greg Casar voted no, saying that the number of affordable units in the project “wasn’t enough.” Council Member Ann Kitchen joined him in opposition, and Council Member Paige Ellis was off the dais for the vote.

Victoria Haase, speaking on behalf of the developer, noted that with SF-6 zoning the project would “provide smaller homes that are more affordable and more attainable than an SF-3 home would be.”

“It will contribute less to gentrification of this area than an SF-3 subdivision would,” Haase said.

Haase also explained that with SF-6 zoning, all infrastructure would be privately maintained, lessening the burden on city services. With SF-3 zoning, the developer would have turned each homesite into an individual property, which Haase said would push upkeep onto the city. The denser plan, she added, would also save more trees.

Multiple community members accused the city and the developer of not working enough with the community.

Susana Almanza, president of the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan Contact Team, said Council “must not align themselves with the profit-seeking real estate developers with little or no regard for the Montopolis community.”

The community members urged Council to take more aggressive action against gentrification and displacement in order to preserve the community, pointing to recommendations from the Uprooted Project. Some suggested that the city should purchase the Saxon property and others like it to build public housing.

“There’s living history in Montopolis,” Peter Simonite said, “and we should strive to care before what’s left of Austin’s original roots disappears completely in front of our eyes.”

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