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Planning Commission recommends ‘missing middle’ project next to single-family homes

Thursday, July 29, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

On Tuesday, the Planning Commission recommended multifamily zoning for a 20-unit townhome project at 901 & 907 Stobaugh St. in the Crestview neighborhood.

The rezoning would represent a substantial increase in density compared to the single-family properties just west of the site, which drew the consternation of neighbors. An auto-body shop, an apartment complex zoned Multifamily-Medium Density (MF-3), and a strip mall also abut the site. The two lots up for rezoning total 1 acre and have one detached home each.

The project requests Multifamilty-Moderate Density (MF-4) zoning. Victoria Haase, agent for the two property owners, argued that the project would constitute “missing middle housing” that is apt for a site between single-family homes and busy corridors with transit like North Lamar. The 20 units, she added, would be less than the maximum 54 possible under MF-4 or 36 possible under MF-3.

City staffers recommended MF-3 zoning instead of MF-4. Though their report said “staff believes that permitting infill development with increased residential density … is appropriate for this property,” they weren’t comfortable with the more intense MF-4 zoning.

Haase said that the project would still be viable with MF-3 zoning. Rejecting the request, however, would mean “million-dollar homes on these two lots” instead of “townhouse-style homes that are more achievable at $500,000.”

Neighbors came out in full force against the rezoning. Several spoke at the meeting and more emailed concerns. One neighbor even prepared a 40-plus-page document to oppose the rezoning. The prevailing concern was increased traffic, which neighbors said would make the residential street dangerous for children.

“It’s frightening to think about the children running around and traffic weaving through the crowded community space with such a large influx of vehicular traffic, even if we’re only getting to those 20 units,” said neighbor Caitlyn Ryan. “It’s just not the right place for a drastic change in zoning.”

Neighbors are currently scraping together signatures for a valid petition, which could throw a big hurdle in the rezoning’s path. If 20 percent of homeowners within 200 feet of the properties sign the petition, Council will need a 9-vote supermajority to pass the rezoning.

Some commissioners sympathized with the traffic problem. “I am really actually concerned about this traffic,” said Commissioner Jennifer Mushtaler, who opposed the rezoning. “Crestview neighborhood is a very family neighborhood, and they’ve done a lot in their area to ensure the safety and walkability of that neighborhood.”

Mushtaler’s comments prompted Commissioner Joao Paulo Connolly to turn the conversation toward the disparate treatment of people who live in single-family homes versus those who live in multifamily buildings.

“It may surprise members of this commission to discover that families live in apartments throughout the entire city of Austin,” Connolly said. He criticized framing by some commissioners and neighbors in “conversations about new development as though homeowners were the center of the city of Austin, the only population worthy of being treated with respect.”

Commissioner Awais Azhar, building off Connolly’s points, read emailed comments from a neighbor concerned about “transient college students” moving into the project, bringing with them noise and lowered property values. “I just want to say traffic might be one reason, but we can clearly see the folks are afraid of the kind of people who live in apartments,” Azhar said.

“I would caution us from impugning motivations on the part of neighbors,” Commissioner Rob Schneider countered. “I think people are always concerned about change.”

Connolly expressed support for the rezoning, arguing that it’s time to move past a “car-centric worldview” in which most people live in single-family homes. “I wish we would stop treating new housing as though it were cancer,” Connolly added.

Commissioner Grayson Cox motioned to recommend MF-3 zoning, but with a 20-unit cap. “I’m a big proponent of when we agree with an applicant’s proposal, making sure we give them the proposal rather than allowing potentially unintended consequences,” he said.

Azhar, in order to give the developer more flexibility, made a substitute motion for MF-3 with no cap. “I’m not sure why we would go ahead and cap it,” he said.

Azhar’s motion failed with only 3 votes in favor. Commissioners then passed Cox’s original motion with a 7-0-2 vote. The case is scheduled for City Council on Aug. 26.

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