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ZAP narrowly recommends South Austin upzoning

Thursday, January 21, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

A request to upzone a vacant South Austin lot squeaked through the Zoning and Platting Commission on Tuesday. The commission voted 6-5 to recommend Urban Family Residence (SF-5) zoning for 1105 Matthews Lane, where a developer envisions 10 townhome units on 2.5 acres.

Commissioners’ comments during the meeting highlighted their differing opinions on the city’s housing needs. Some commissioners pushed for less dense zoning, arguing that fewer homes would blend better into a neighborhood of single-family homes on large lots. Others urged commissioners to allow as many homes as possible given the lack of housing in the city.  

“The SF-5 is a stretch on this site,” Commissioner Jim Duncan said. “It’s not a rational use.”

Commissioner Cesar Acosta pressed for the denser SF-5 zoning. “I don’t believe that Austin does have enough housing, market rate or otherwise,” he said. “We’re becoming a hotter housing market and there’s going to be an influx of new jobs.”

City staffers recommended approving the request for the site, which has been zoned as a placeholding “development reserve” since its annexation. Staffers deemed SF-5 zoning compatible with the neighboring SF-2 and SF-3 lots. Because a creek runs through the tract, only about an acre could be built on, clustering the future homes near the front of the property. “I’m having a hard time imagining 10 units on one acre,” Commissioner Ana Aguirre said. 

Some commissioners brought up the concept of neighborhood character. “We cannot ignore that it’s in the middle of the established neighborhood,” Duncan said. “There are a lot of families who have invested everything in their homes.” 

Commissioner David King worried that other new development would skew denser after this ruling, further changing the neighborhood and others like it. “One of the concerns I have,” he said, “is that SF-5 zoning will … set a new precedent in this area, and all the SF-2s and SF-3s around will come up and say, ‘We’re next in line; we want SF-5.'”

“Any chance we have to build more on an area where there’s fewer I think is generally a good idea,” Acosta countered. “Generally speaking, the philosophy of adding a mixed variety of homes is a good thing.”

King said he was disappointed that the proposal didn’t include income-restricted homes and lamented the lack of such homes citywide. “I know we all have our different sources of information,” he said, “and one of the sources that I’ve read recently said that in Austin we do have a sufficient supply of market-rate housing coming onto the market. What we don’t have enough supply of is income-restricted housing.” 

Commissioner Ellen Ray disagreed: “This may not be building ‘capital-A affordable,’ income-restricted housing units, but nonetheless, I just want to reiterate that we have a supply problem in the city.” 

“We have a need generally in this city to build where we can,” Ray said. “The goal was 447 units last year (in Council District 5), and only 253 were built” she added, citing the recently released Strategic Housing Blueprint Scorecard by local nonprofit Housing Works. 

The lone public comment came from the president of Matthews Lane Neighborhood Association, Eugene Sutton: “The rezoning to SF-5 would not be welcome.”

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