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Cave concern means no ZAP recommendation for Luby’s rezoning

Friday, August 20, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

Two weeks ago, Zoning and Platting commissioners made one thing clear: Without more information about two caves under the Luby’s cafeteria site in Northwest Austin, the commission can’t discuss the Multifamily-Highest Density (MF-6) zoning requested by the developer, who wants to build apartments on the site.

At Tuesday’s hearing, even a study of the small, mostly lifeless caves plus the developer’s insistence that construction will not disturb the caves failed to assure some commissioners.

Half of the commission either abstained or voted against the rezoning in large part because of lingering concerns about the development’s impact to the caves and organisms living there. With only five votes in favor – one short of a majority – the case goes to City Council without a recommendation. City staffers and the neighborhood association support the rezoning, and nobody spoke in opposition at the meeting.

Developer Ardent Residential plans a five-story, 275-unit building on the 2-acre site, with 10 percent of the homes to be set aside for people making less than 80 percent of the median family income.

The project is one of few in recent years to propose income-restricted housing in wealthy District 10, which has made almost no progress toward its affordable housing goals. In 2019, only 22 affordable units came online in the district – 3 percent of the 846-unit annual target.

Commissioner Carrie Thompson, along with Commissioner Ann Denkler, called for more information about the caves. “I have talked to people, not just rumors and myths, but experts on this cave, on these species, that say there is reason to do further exploration,” Thompson said. Lacking that, both said they were uncomfortable recommending the rezoning.

Over the course of the discussion, a city staffer, the developer’s representatives and other commissioners all said that caves are not pertinent to zoning cases and instead should be examined during the site plan process.

“You don’t deal with caves at the zoning phase,” Commissioner Hank Smith said. “Is this site fit to have the zoning that they have requested? That’s the simple question before us.”

“We’ve gone above and beyond with due diligence work that is typically done well after the zoning stage,” said Brett Denton with Ardent Residential. Lobbyist Michael Gaudini said the project will have less impervious cover than the site does today and will not be built over the caves. The caves just graze the property line and are already paved over with asphalt or covered with a manhole.

The drawn-out fuss over caves and cave-dwelling creatures left Smith visibly exasperated. He tried in vain to call a vote after Commissioner Ellen Ray called the question some minutes earlier. “I’m just trying to get a vote,” Smith said. “We all know where this is going: 5-5.” Commissioners then discussed the caves for nearly 30 more minutes.

Denkler at one point asked for another postponement to get information from city environmental officers about the caves and relevant regulations, but that motion was shot down.

Some commissioners also opposed the project because it will not be affordable enough. “We use smoke and mirrors to make it look like, ‘Oh, look how great this 80 percent median family income is over in District 10, isn’t this wonderful?’” Commissioner David King said. “Well, that’s almost double the median family income for Black and Latino families in Austin. How many black and Latino families, low-income families will be able to live in this development?”

Commissioner Betsy Greenberg argued that because there are naturally affordable units in older apartments nearby, the rezoning would grant “a lot of entitlement for relatively little community benefit.”

“There is … plenty of market-rate housing in that 80 percent MFI level,” Greenberg said.

Ray, who supported the rezoning, argued just the opposite: “This project is the only way we’re going to get affordable housing in this part of town.”

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