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Planning Commission throws support behind Springdale Green development

Tuesday, March 30, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

The Planning Commission last Tuesday recommended rezoning a 30-acre brownfield site in East Austin to make way for Springdale Green, a proposed 800,000-square-foot, mixed-use development.

The commission voted 7-4 to support Planned Unit Development zoning, though only at the current building footprint. City staffers support the rezoning, as does the Environmental Commission.

The development sits on a former tank farm that stored oil and gas, contaminating land despite protest from residents. “This is a really critical site in our environmental racism history,” said Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido, who grew up nearby.

The PUD zoning acts as a kind of density bonus, granting developers more height in exchange for certain benefits for projects that typically, though not always, sit on large tracts. The developer, Jay Paul Company, proposes two office buildings reaching 93 feet in height and a parking garage, which would exceed the current 60-foot cap, plus ground-floor retail.

The site layout that was presented at the meeting. Image courtesy Kimley-Horn.

To achieve PUD zoning, the project will provide $700,000 toward affordable housing, $250,000 for a nearby urban trail project, $75,000 for property tax assistance to East Austin residents and and over $400,000 to expand water detention facilities that will help fix existing flooding issues in the adjacent watershed. 

Springdale Green also plans to meet LEED green building standards. Other sustainability initiatives include limiting impervious cover to 50 percent of the site, removing invasive species from 15 acres of forest, and mitigating floods with rainwater cisterns and a large detention pond. A floodplain covers most of the property, forcing the buildings into a cluster near Springdale Road. 

The site’s history precludes residential development, even after remediation work by oil companies in the 1990s. Michael Whellan, the representative for the developer, said that the “truly extraordinary” cost of further remediating the site to allow housing makes doing so infeasible.

Some commissioners and neighbors were concerned that the increased height would conflict with the area’s single-family neighborhoods, paving the way for similar developments in a rapidly changing part of town.

Ben Ramirez, a volunteer with a neighborhood plan contact team, worried that the development would set a precedent of “skyscrapers in our single-family neighborhood.” Ramirez, as well as SANA, a nearby neighborhood association, prefer a 60-foot height limit on the project.

“The concerns of the neighborhood about precedent are well-founded,” Commissioner Rob Schneider said. “This is a big change.”

Others saw no problem with the height. “Especially in places like this, we shouldn’t be afraid of height,” Commissioner James Shieh said. Commissioner Joao Paulo Connolly asked Ramirez, “What harm does height cause?”

Whellan said the community benefits justify the increased height, adding, “We’re really proud of what we’re offering.”

Residents on Saucedo Street, who live closest to the development, are in favor of the project, including the increased height.

In order to address compatibility with homes on Saucedo Street, the developer plans to cap the height at 75 feet starting at 85 feet away from the houses before stepping up to 93 feet in height 140 feet from the houses.

The commission recommended that City Council mandate these setbacks in the PUD ordinance so that the developer can’t “squirrel away and come up with some other idea,” as Shieh put it. Council is set to hear the zoning case at its next meeting on April 8.

This story has been corrected to clarify the motion that passed, the types of buildings proposed by the project and to include information about the proposed water detention facilities.

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