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500-unit South Lamar project fails to get Planning Commission support

Tuesday, June 15, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

Since the Planning Commission has opposed Multifamily Residence-Highest Density (MF-6) zoning for a 500-unit apartment project at 2700 S. Lamar Blvd., the rezoning will go before Council next month without the commission’s recommendation.

The developer for the project hopes to rezone several lots with various commercial, multifamily and vertical mixed-use zoning to MF-6, which would allow buildings up to 90 feet in height. The additional height would allow the developer to voluntarily commit 50 income-restricted units at 60 percent median family income. City staffers support the MF-6 zoning. The Zilker Neighborhood Association is opposed.

The project’s benefits, according to agent for the applicant Michael Whellan, include affordable homes in a high-opportunity area, density along a key transit corridor away from single-family homes, and a slight decrease in impervious cover compared to the current buildings in an environmentally sensitive area.

Some commissioners opposed the project’s height and lack of commercial space. Commissioner Rob Schneider argued last week that, because MF-6 zoning only allows residential use, the project would “degrade walkability” in the area.

“We would be putting a bunch of residents in,” Schneider said, “but we’d be taking away a bunch of things that would be just downstairs for them or things that neighbors could walk to.”

Kate Clark with the Housing and Planning Department said staff members supported MF-6 zoning in part to add a residential use on a largely commercial corridor.

Schneider said that the developer should ideally “go back to the drawing board” and come back with a vertical mixed-use proposal for the whole site that would be lower and contain commercial space. Whellan said such a proposal would cut the number of units – including the affordable units – in half because of height restrictions.

Commissioner Awais Azhar motioned to approve city staffers’ recommendation of MF-6 zoning, but Schneider made a substitute motion to approve MF-6 with a 75-foot height limit.

“I really question why we would go with this,” Azhar said. “I think we’ve heard clearly from the applicant that limiting the height to 75 feet or otherwise will take away their ability to provide those 50 affordable units.” Schneider’s substitute motion failed 2-6.

The commission then voted on Azhar’s motion, with four in favor of MF-6 zoning and six against. Commissioners Yvette Flores, Claire Hempel and James Shieh were off the dais.

Chair Todd Shaw attributed the commissioners’ disagreement to the city’s restrictive Land Development Code. “We really need a new land code that gives us more choices. We don’t have the right tool in the toolkit to get us what I think we all would agree to here tonight,” Shaw said.

Whellan told the Austin Monitor that even without a Planning Commission recommendation, plans haven’t changed; the applicant will still seek MF-6 zoning at City Council’s next meeting on July 29. Whellan said the project is in line with “multiple policies that Council has unanimously passed over the last five years” in support of “the type of residential density on the transit corridors that this would provide, especially with on-site income-restricted, affordable units.”

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