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Planning Commission backs apartments on St. Andrew’s School property

Tuesday, April 20, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

The Planning Commission last Tuesday backed rezoning a portion of land owned by St. Andrew’s School in Southwest Austin, bringing a proposed 295-unit apartment project one step closer to fruition.

The school aims to rezone a 15-acre slice of its underused, mostly vacant land at 5613 Patton Ranch Road to Multifamily-Moderate Density (MF-4) from the current Multifamily-Limited Density (MF-1). 

Because the tract lies within the Barton Springs Contributing Zone – which caps impervious cover at 20 percent – the apartment building will be constrained to a small portion of the site. The applicant also plans a 400-foot buffer between the building and the adjacent Oak Park neighborhood.

Oak Park’s neighborhood association, fearful that the project will worsen flooding, opposes the project.

“Oak Park remains entirely vulnerable to a catastrophic flooding event,” said Nancy Baker-Jones, representing the group. “We oppose development that increases that vulnerability, including the construction of this apartment complex.”

Jeff Howard, a member of the St. Andrew’s Board of Trustees, argued that the zoning case “has no impact on drainage.”  The MF-4 zoning wouldn’t change the building’s footprint, he said; it would simply allow an extra floor and 25 percent more units.

There’s a unique ability here, with zero impact to the environment, to add residential units without adding impervious cover,” said Greg Weaver, who is also on the board. 

With or without the rezoning, the project is likely to move forward.

Howard also pointed to two flood-control measures planned as part of the project: a detention pond to control runoff, plus a city-built berm and swale along the edge of the property, for which the school intends to donate five acres. 

If City Council approves the rezoning, the school will donate the land. If not, the school won’t, throwing the berm and swale project – “the last missing piece” in a comprehensive flood-control plan for the neighborhood – into uncertainty.

Baker-Jones worried the berm and swale wouldn’t be finished before the new complex, leaving the neighborhood vulnerable in the meantime. The Watershed Protection Department and the applicant said both the flood-control project and the apartment building should start construction in summer 2022 and finish around the same time. 

Chair Todd Shaw asked Baker-Jones whether she would prefer halting development until the flood controls are built.

“We’re not requesting that there be no development; I mean, honestly, we probably would, but it seems fruitless given our situation here,” she said.

Commissioner Claire Hempel moved to recommend the MF-4 zoning and encouraged the applicant and the city to work together with the neighborhood to continue addressing flood concerns.

The commission voted 11-1 in favor, with Commissioner Jeffrey Thompson voting against the project for environmental reasons: “I can’t support density in this location. It is limiting impervious cover, but there’s still the environmental damage of having 25 percent more cars drive over the aquifer, every day.” 

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