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Planning Commission recommends newest Foundation Communities project

Thursday, April 15, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

The Planning Commission has backed the latest project by local affordable housing developer Foundation Communities, recommending Multifamily-Moderate Density (MF-4) zoning for an 8-acre, church-owned property at 2105 Parker Lane in Southeast Austin.

The Parker Apartments will offer 135 units affordable to households at or below 60 percent area median income, in addition to a learning center, public community space, church offices, and a full slate of tenant services. 

The project will replace the defunct Ward Memorial Methodist Church. Those affiliated with the church say the project will allow the church’s mission to continue. 

The tract is currently zoned Family Residence (SF-3), and the developer requests MF-4 zoning. City staffers recommended MF-3 zoning for compatibility reasons. Conor Kenny, agent for the developer, said that although MF-3 zoning would probably allow the project to be built as proposed, MF-4 provides “flexibility.”

The project is family oriented: 80 percent of the units will have 2 or 3 bedrooms, and 14 units will cater to parents and children who have been homeless. The developer will seek Austin Energy’s highest Green Building standards, provide open space and preserve all heritage trees. According to Kenny, the open space makes the project’s density comparable to that of a project with MF-1 zoning. 

Despite the project’s deep affordable housing and bounty of community benefits, a third of the neighboring property owners have signed a petition against the rezoning, forcing a supermajority vote at City Council for approval. Several neighbors also wrote in opposition and spoke at the meeting. Though concerns ran the gamut, the most salient involved maintaining the property’s civic use. 

Walter Moreau, Foundation Communities executive director, said he was “surprised” that so many neighbors oppose the project, particularly on the grounds that it would preclude future civic use on the site. “All of the services the neighbors want – food pantry, health programs, immigration services, children’s education programs – that’s exactly what we do.”

“There are just some neighbors who are opposed to the project no matter what,” Moreau said.

Commissioners supported the project though differed on the proper zoning.

Commissioner Grayson Cox attempted to hold Foundation Communities – and a hypothetical future developer, should the property change hands – to the current proposal, making a motion to recommend MF-3 zoning with a 135-unit limit. 

“We’re changing the zoning on this property to something that could potentially be extremely valuable to developers,” Cox said. If Foundation Communities was not the developer, Cox said he would likely vote against a similar-sized project.

Commissioner Jennifer Mushtaler, the new District 6 appointee, shared Cox’s concerns that allowing MF-4 zoning could “open up this area to something that is not appropriate.” 

“I’m not sure why we would cap the number of affordable units,” Commissioner Awais Azhar countered. Azhar motioned to recommend the requested MF-4 zoning to give Foundation Communities “the flexibility that they need.” He and others vouched for Foundation Communities and the church’s bona fides and stressed the unlikelihood of either party backing out and a new developer swooping in.

Cox’s motion failed.

After a “hefty” – as Azhar said – two-hour discussion, the commissioners voted 11-0-1 to recommend MF-4 zoning, with Mushtaler abstaining. Council is scheduled to vote on the rezoning May 6.

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