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Parks board says no to parkland compromise

Thursday, September 16, 2021 by Jo Clifton

Austin’s Parks and Recreation Board voted unanimously at Tuesday’s meeting to reject a developer’s appeal related to city regulations for parkland dedication for a proposed apartment complex at 403 E. Koenig Lane. Only six members of the board – the minimum for a quorum – attended the meeting at the Zilker Botanical Garden.

The case will now move to the Planning Commission with a recommendation against allowing the property owner, Seco Ventures, to configure dedicated parkland on the property in a way that allows it to maximize housing, including affordable housing. If the development is built in the way Seco Ventures would like, there will be 434 units, including 44 affordable units under Vertical Mixed-Use (VMU) zoning.

However, Seco’s attorney, Michael Whellan of Armbrust and Brown, argued that if the developer were to build under parks department proposals, the developer would lose at least 42 total units, including five affordable apartments.

Whellan said the affordable housing being offered is tied to the fact that Seco is developing under VMU and they have to provide 10 percent of the total units as on-site income-restricted. Losing units as proposed by the parks department plan “would make the project financially difficult to justify because of the other constraints … most notably, the fact that you’re really limited to just three stories on most of the site because of compatibility,” he told the Austin Monitor.

Staff members had suggested in their presentation that the developer could solve the problem by working under the city’s Affordability Unlocked program. However the developer is not participating in that program, which operates with city subsidies and requires a much higher level of affordability, Whellan noted.

Board Chair Dawn Lewis asked Whellan why they couldn’t solve their problem simply by building higher. He told her they could not do so because the property is next to a single-family neighborhood. She asked whether they could get a variance. Whellan responded that he thought there may have been five such variances granted in the past 20 years.

He stressed the idea that the city “can meet both our housing and parkland needs without pitting the two against each other.” But under the parks department rules, staffers said they are not allowed to take affordable housing into consideration unless the housing falls typically under the Smart Housing category.

Under city regulations, because the 6.5-acre site is within the urban core, the parkland requirement is just 0.98 acres. The developer proposes two button parks, one on the east side and one on the west side. They will be connected by a proposed transit park connector. In addition, the developer proposes to offer amenities within Austin Energy’s easement. The utility has agreed to allow the amenities, but PARD has rejected the idea.

Whellan also argues that the parks department needs the money it would get from his client’s donation. As he said in his presentation to the board, PARD spends about 25 to 30 percent of parkland development fees on neighborhood, button and pocket park improvements. At the rate they are spending, the department’s “long-term financial responsibility for those parks is about 3,590 percent of its annual revenues for those parks,” he said.

According to the department’s calculations, the Koenig development will add 434 units and about 737 new residents to an already park-deficient neighborhood. The department claimed that configuring the parkland in the way the applicant proposed “would result in no parkland being dedicated with this site development.”

That is not how Whellan sees it. He said his client was willing to provide on-site park space and improvements and also pay a 100 percent fee-in-lieu. Allowing the configuration proposed by the developer “would provide more ‘amenitized’ park space,” more park improvements and more revenue for the city’s parks, he said.

Parks department planner Robynne Heymans told the board that the area is considered deficient of parkland, with no park space within a quarter mile. She said staff could not recommend the configuration proposed by the applicant and that the department was not authorized to consider a monetary donation.

Counting the button parks and the Austin Energy easement, the park area with amenities would total 1.1 acres with an estimated value of $458,000 in amenities. Even without the Austin Energy easement, Whellan says the proposed parkland would meet city requirements.

But according to the department, the proposed Koenig Button Park on the west side of the property is too small at 0.17 acre. However, Whellan points out that the park is larger than the Mustang Button Park (6096 Guadalupe), which is just 0.13 acre. The department is proposing consolidating the two button parks, which would eliminate both affordable and market-rate housing.

Several neighbors attending the meeting asked the board to reject the appeal. Dana Markus-Wolf criticized the developer’s proposal for a bike lane along Koenig and also rejected the idea of dividing up the parks. Tommy Larson, who said he lives near the proposed development, pointed out that the closest park, Shipe Park, is quite a distance from the area. He urged parks board members to reject the appeal, seeming to assume that the developer would develop the property in accordance with parks department recommendations. Brian Bedrosian, vice president of the North Loop ATX Neighborhood Association, said 60 percent of his group voted to oppose the appeal during a recent meeting.

This article has been changed since publication to reflect the fact that the value of the amenities, not the land, is $458,000.

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