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Planning Commission recommends rezoning for East Austin townhome project

Thursday, February 18, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

The Planning Commission last week backed a request to rezone a vacant East Austin tract at 4908 Lott Ave. to allow 62 townhomes – including five income-restricted units.

Michael Whellan, who was representing the applicant, said that because the current zoning only permits “McMansions,” the rezoning “would make it feasible” to provide “missing middle” and affordable housing. 

Some neighbors spoke at the Feb. 9 meeting to oppose the project, even though two neighborhood associations, the neighborhood’s contact team and city staffers support it.  Commissioners ultimately sided with the latter group, voting 8-0-3 to recommend changing the current Family Residence (SF-3) zoning to denser Townhouse and Condominium (SF-6) zoning. 

The neighbors who spoke balked at the number of homes. The resulting traffic, they believed, would make nearby roads – some of which are narrow and lack sidewalks – dangerous.

“We would strongly and vehemently disagree with the number of units overall – period,” said Antony McGregor Dey. “We just think that that’s far too many for the area.” 

Whellan said that increased traffic is a trade-off for more affordable homes. “Every single project in the city of Austin,” Whellan said, “increases the number of vehicle trips in the project’s neighborhood – and that’s no different here. The question really, for all of us, is whether we want those projects to be more modestly scaled and more accessible to families, or whether we want to force them to become McMansions.”

An approved subdivision from 2019 under SF-3 zoning offered no income-restricted homes. The plan included mostly larger single-family homes, some with accessory dwellings.

Whellan insisted that even if the exact number of units in the current proposal changes slightly, the number of affordable units will remain the same and will be priced at 80 percent median family income for 99 years.

The neighbors also said they did not receive enough notice about the rezoning from the city or the developer. “It just appeared out of nowhere,” McGregor Dey said of the project. 

The neighborhood requested more time for their concerns to be addressed. They were already granted a two-week postponement at the previous Planning Commission meeting, and city staff said that they gave proper notice. Whellan said he had been proactive about reaching out to neighborhood groups and residents.

The neighbors said they may submit a petition opposing the project. “If we are not given any kind of accommodations or respect as a neighborhood,” said David Boyle, “then that’s what we are going to have to do.”

Commissioner Joao Paulo Connolly said he won’t pass up the “chance that we have right now to prevent some large, expensive houses from being built, and to have some affordable ownership units with locked affordability. Especially because it doesn’t seem like, aside from traffic, there are any real major concerns with this project.” 

Other commissioners assured the neighbors that there will be more time to voice their concerns. 

“There is one month between now and when we go to Council where there can be a conversation,” said Commissioner Awais Azhar. He added: “There are some questions that will have to be answered at the time of site plan.”

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