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Springdale and 12th Street upzoning OK’d

Tuesday, August 3, 2021 by Jo Clifton

At the urging of Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison, City Council approved a zoning request for 1200, 1202 and 1208 Springdale Road Thursday night, with all members voting in favor except Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, who was off the dais.

The undeveloped property has been zoned Community Commercial-Mixed Use (GR-MU-NP), and the new zoning simply adds a V, allowing additional units with greater density. Alice Glasco, who represented Urban ATX Development, explained that under the current zoning they can build 76 residential units. But the added density will allow for 126 units and commercial space. With the additional units, density bonus rules will require that 10 percent of the housing be dedicated to people earning 80 percent of the median family income or less.

As Glasco noted, the Planning Commission asked that the developer make the 13 affordable units available to people earning just 60 percent of Austin’s median family income. Although neither the commission nor Council may adopt such a requirement, Glasco said her client would agree and write the requirement into a private restrictive covenant. She told Council that the covenant would be filed after the new zoning wins final approval.

Glasco explained to the Austin Monitor Monday that the developer would hire a nonprofit organization to certify it was living up to the covenant.

The rezoning for Twelfth and Springdale Residences drew protests from area neighbors, including the Martin Luther King Neighborhood Association. A number of neighbors expressed concern that the additional units might worsen existing flooding problems in the area. According to city staff’s report, “Any development of multifamily or commercial uses on the rezoning tract will require an engineered site plan.”

Others mentioned the need to preserve the adjacent Bethany Cemetery, a historically African American cemetery established in the 1800s.

Attorney Bill Aleshire said he was one of several attorneys offering legal advice to people concerned about the future of the graveyard, such as Sue Spears, a longtime Bethany volunteer. Spears signed a valid petition against the rezoning, but the city’s legal staff rejected her claim. Aleshire explained that the three men who set up the foundation to care for the cemetery all died several years ago. The foundation then lost its charter because it failed to file franchise tax reports. Even if Spears’ signature had been accepted as part of the valid petition, it likely would have made no difference with 10 Council members voting in favor of the zoning change.

Nevertheless, Spears is one of a number of residents concerned about the historic cemetery. Melonie Dixon, chair of the Martin Luther King Neighborhood Association, and Sonia Seeman, a member of the Pecan Springs Neighborhood Association, both members of the East MLK contact team, told Council they were concerned about changes to their neighborhood, which spurred the development of a “response committee.”

Seeman said, “We have formed this development response committee because so many large tracts of land are being purchased for development east of I-35 without regard to historical value, without regard to the requests of the residents for increased retail, grocery stores, pharmacies, community spaces, and for the tendency of many developers to zoom in immediately on expensive retail and broad buildings that take up a great deal of cover, impervious cover. We are already in danger of flooding not only from Tannehill Branch (Creek), which is the area by this site, but also above where my house is located, Fort Branch, because of the sheer number of multifamily housing developments. Specifically with regard to 12th and Springdale, I want to cite the significance of the Black history and the community needs in this area.”

She said she felt work verifying the boundaries of the cemetery had not been “adequately explored.”

However, Glasco and her team provided information about Bethany Cemetery, which included work with the Texas Historical Commission to verify the history and boundaries of the cemetery. According to staff notes, “If any graves are located within the boundaries of the rezoning tract the property owner will be responsible for relocating the graves.”

According to aci consulting, “The cemetery is approximately 6.25 acres in size, and contains approximately 500 burials, with the earliest burial dating to 1835 when Willie Rivers was interred at Bethany Cemetery and is one of the earliest African American burials in Austin.”

The consultant concluded, “The boundary of the cemetery and the associated burials appear to have stayed within the land designated for Bethany Cemetery. Therefore, aci consulting believes there is a low probability for the presence of burials to be within the land parcels located outside and adjacent to Bethany Cemetery.”

When Harper-Madison made the motion to adopt the new zoning, she noted that she had requested the city not attempt to take over the cemetery. She said, “My team and I have worked extremely hard at the request of the MLK neighborhood residents to bring forward an item that would transfer ownership of Bethany Cemetery to the city in order to ensure its preservation and care in perpetuity. However, I withdrew the item when those same residents informed us they no longer wanted to move in that direction.”

Aleshire said via email, “Preserving the history that Bethany Cemetery represents of Black people in Austin is very important, if not a moral obligation. This is the primary reason Sue Spears is not opposed to the city taking over responsibility for the cemetery. While volunteers like Sue Spears have struggled for years to maintain the cemetery, the cemetery needs more resources than are available from private sources.”

The zoning item is set to return to Council for second and third readings on Aug. 26. It is not clear what will happen to the cemetery.

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