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Planning Commission urges more housing in Montopolis

Tuesday, February 2, 2021 by Harrison Young

Last week the Planning Commission voted 8-4 to recommend rezoning 1013-1017 Montopolis Drive to accommodate higher-density residences, paving the way for multi-story residences like apartments and condos.

Thrower Design applied to rezone the undeveloped 3.12-acre lot from single-family (SF-3) to multifamily (MF-6) land use. Opponents say zoning areas like this for higher density accelerates gentrification, while those in favor argue that the need for housing outweighs other concerns.

After much deliberation, Planning Commissioner Awais Azhar moved to rezone, recommending that the developer consider dedicating half of the area to affordable housing units.

“I really hope as they go toward Council that they will take a strong look at (affordable housing) … that also allows and actually does some community benefit,” Azhar said.

Members of the Montopolis community voiced their disapproval of the project.

“We need to think bigger and prioritize housing for those that live in the community,” said Noé Elias, secretary of the Montopolis Community Development Corporation.

“This starts with listening,” he said: “Listening to those that live here, those that work here.” Elias added that private developers often fall short on promises of affordable housing.

Last year, 508 Kemp St., also in Montopolis, was the subject of a similar discussion, with plans to build a mix of market-rate and affordable housing falling apart at City Council after considerable neighborhood opposition.

Ron Thrower, founder and owner of Thrower Design, emphasized the lot’s proximity to transit and other community amenities.

“Density here I believe is very appropriate, especially if it’s scaled correctly and coupled with the voluntary affordable housing that we’re offering,” Thrower said.

Thrower also noted that he believes his firm’s request is well under what is allowed.

Montopolis, situated in Austin’s east side, is one of the city’s last majority Black, brown and indigenous neighborhoods, and its residents are keen to keep overpriced developments out of the area.

Fears of rocketing real estate prices have taken hold amid news of Silicon Valley giants relocating to Austin, stoking further calls for officials to take gentrification more seriously.

Commissioner James Shieh sounded the alarm. “We have housing prices going into territories we don’t even understand,” he said. “We don’t know where we’re headed on housing … if we don’t start taking creative, aggressive measures, we won’t have housing for anybody.”

“From what I’m seeing in the market, we are not ready for what is coming,” Shieh said. “It really concerns me, especially when it comes to affordability.”

Apple broke ground on a new campus in North Austin in 2019, and Elon Musk moved to town with Tesla in tow. Construction is underway on Google’s new skyscraper downtown, and with Oracle’s announcement that it’s moving to Austin, and now the possibility of a Samsung plant, the city is set to continue its explosive growth.

In 2018, the University of Texas at Austin released its Uprooted report, which lays out guidelines on identifying and protecting communities vulnerable to gentrification.

Some commissioners said the city should follow the Uprooted framework in future decisions and projects.

“I just think everything indicates that this is not the place to put dense housing,” Commissioner Patricia Seeger said. “Let’s listen to the Uprooted study, let’s design according to the Uprooted study and leave these challenged neighborhoods alone.”

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