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Council gives initial OK to Fair Market rezoning

Wednesday, September 1, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

City Council has tentatively approved a height increase for a new East Austin office project that would replace Fair Market, an event space, on the southern half of the block bordered by Waller, East Fifth and Sixth streets.

Council Member Pio Renteria, taking the lead on the case in his District 3, motioned to approved the requested height variance from 60 to 85 feet on first reading only. Renteria said his final vote is dependent on an agreement between the neighborhood contact team and the developer regarding the community benefits being provided in exchange for the increased height.

“If we can’t get that satisfaction, I’ll be the first one willing to vote against it,” Renteria said.

Based on testimony from Kristen Heaney, chair of the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Contact Team, an agreement does not appear imminent. Heaney urged Council to oppose the variance because the developer does not plan to provide on-site affordable housing.

“The applicant has yet to articulate any compelling reason not to provide affordable housing on-site,” Heaney said. “This alone should make your decision to oppose this very, very easy.”

Heaney added that the fee in lieu of on-site affordable housing is too low and that developing the park doesn’t make up for the meager fees. “Their fair market offer is not acceptable,” she said.

The developer plans to build a five-story office building with ground floor retail; there are no plans for residential use, affordable or otherwise. According to lobbyist Richard Suttle, the fee-in-lieu will be roughly $1 million in compliance with the Plaza Saltillo transit-oriented development plan. The developer cannot pay a higher fee because of legal issues on the city’s side.

“This case really does underscore the need for us to update our affordable housing fees for TODs in particular,” Council Member Alison Alter said.

The park would be located in the vacated Medina Street right of way, which is sandwiched between the project and the site in question and the existing Corazon apartments.

Renteria detailed how the city had eyed the vacated ROW for parkland before deciding that the steep slope of the site would prevent an ADA-accessible park. “We’ve been working years on that park, and we raised enough funds to get it developed,” he said. “But what happened was that we couldn’t make it handicap-accessible without spending an outrageous amount of money and zigzagging that little piece of land to the point where it’s not even usable.”

Early conceptual renderings for the park, provided by the developer, show a plaza with seating, landscaping and stairs leading up to Medina Street.

The Planning Commission did not come up with a recommendation in July in large part because of concerns about people perceiving the park as part of the private retail space instead of its intended use as a public park. Commissioners also agreed with neighborhood representatives that the fee-in-lieu is inadequate. City staffers support the height increase.

All Council members on the dais Thursday voted in favor on first reading, with Council Member Mackenzie Kelly and Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison off the dais.

Neighbors and the developer will have one month to find common ground before the case returns to Council on Sept. 30.

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