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For neighbors’ sake, Planning Commission recommends downsizing multifamily project by half

Friday, September 17, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

In an attempt to appease neighbors wary of new multifamily development, the Planning Commission Tuesday recommended less dense zoning than was requested by the owner of several vacant lots at Grady and Brownie drives in North Austin.

The commission followed city staffers’ recommendation of Multifamily-Low Density (MF-2) and Neighborhood Commercial Mixed-Use (LR-MU) zoning for the site. “It seems like a compromise that staff has come up with between the neighborhood and what the applicant is looking for,” said Commissioner Claire Hempel, who made the motion.

The property owner plans up to 70 multifamily units plus commercial space should City Council approve the request for Multifamily-Medium Density (MF-4) and Commercial Services Mixed-Use (CS-MU) zoning. If Council sides with the commission and city staff, the number of potential units would be cut in half.

Some neighbors, fearing gentrification and other adverse impacts, are opposed to the rezoning. Jade Lovera said it would put the neighbors at risk of displacement, subject them to “further oppression and systemic racism” and harm their quality of life in a number of ways.

“This development is not intended to serve the current resident demographics, which will result in rapid displacement of long-term residents,” Lovera said.

According to the University of Texas’ 2018 Uprooted report, the neighborhood is “most vulnerable” to gentrification and displacement. Even though the neighborhood was stable at the time of the report, property values have shot up nearly everywhere in today’s super-charged housing market, increasing displacement pressure.

“It’s a very difficult case,” Commissioner Joao Paulo Connolly said. “We do have to recognize that new development, new higher-income residents can bring gentrification.” But Connolly condemned the idea that opposing multifamily development prevents gentrification. “There’s no data to back it up,” he said.

Connolly asked Lovera whether she would support a project with some affordable units. Lovera said no. Though the property owner may make 5 to 10 percent of units income-restricted, the current proposal is entirely market-rate, in part because neighbors told the owner’s representatives, Victoria Haase and Ron Thrower, that they didn’t want affordable housing nearby.

When Connolly asked whether Lovera would support a hypothetical 100-percent affordable housing project, Lovera said she needed more details. When pressed for a yes or no answer, she said, “No, initially.”

Another neighbor, Bee Klingemann, said the new neighbors in the development would not be welcome. “We don’t need to bring in people who are only going to be there short-term and not care what happens to their property or that of the people around them,” said Klingemann, who has lived in the neighborhood for 51 years. Haase noted that units will be for sale and not for rent.

Lyn Galbreth, a community organizer from a nearby neighborhood, said she preferred the site be developed with single-family homes because of the “huge imbalance of multifamily over single-family” in the broader North Lamar-Rundberg area. “This has helped destabilize our neighborhood,” she said.

The immediate neighborhood, however, is single-family. The property, beyond abutting one single-family home and a car dealership, is surrounded by public right of way.

The main reason the land sits vacant is because single-family homes cannot be built on the site. A deed restriction on the property requires commercial use, which includes multifamily but not single-family use. Even if the zoning changes, the deed restriction would remain.

Thrower told the Austin Monitor that building single-family homes, generally speaking,”gentrifies an area much faster than providing housing stock greater than just single-family homes.”

Thrower also said that condos built under MF-2 zoning would likely be more expensive than condos built under MF-4 zoning. “Less units spread across X land value is more expensive than more units spread across that same X land value,” he said.

Commissioners voted 9-1-1 in favor of MF-2 and LR-MU zoning, with Carmen Llanes Pulido against and Awais Azhar abstaining.

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