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Council gives initial approval to denser zoning on S. Lamar site

Tuesday, October 19, 2021 by Jo Clifton

Last Thursday, Council gave first reading approval to rezoning of about 3 acres of land close to the intersection of South Lamar and Menchaca. Developer John Warnock promises to provide 10 percent of an estimated 450 apartment units to renters earning 60 percent of the median family income if granted the MF-6 zoning he is requesting.

Part of the site, which extends west from Lamar to Skyway Circle, is within the Barton Creek Watershed, a part of the Barton Springs zone. Attorney Michael Whellan, who is representing the developer, told the Austin Monitor that “under the city’s redevelopment ordinance, the developer is allowed to use existing impervious cover so long as several additional environmental protections are included in the site plan, including current water quality ponds.” He expects the redeveloped site to provide more housing with a lower percentage of impervious cover as well as superior environmental controls.

As noted in the zoning staff report, the developer has not applied for any of the city’s affordable housing programs, which means any affordable housing achieved on the site will be done voluntarily, not as part of the rezoning request. That worries neighbor Lorraine Atherton of the Zilker Neighborhood Association.

Atherton urged Council members to reject the zoning request, saying that Council should keep the vertical mixed-use designation that would require affordable housing, rather than relying on the developer’s promise to provide it. She said there are numerous other proposed developments on South Lamar with more affordable housing than the one at 2700 S. Lamar. Atherton told Council, “It would be a terrible mistake to add this sort of density … without it being included in the density bonus program, without a real smart housing application in hand.” She added, “It would be a mistake to give these incentives away without getting real affordability.”

Whellan pointed out that the developer has agreed to a covenant that comes with the property providing for the 10 percent affordable units for 40 years. He said HomeBase, a subsidiary of Habitat for Humanity, has agreed to work with the developer to ensure that the covenant is honored. Under the agreement, HomeBase will do quarterly audits of the affordable housing provided by the developer, he said.

Atherton said when her group met with the developer they were not able to see a written commitment to the 10 percent affordable units. In addition, she said the proposal would demolish current housing.

Whellan said the developer has promised that people who lose their apartments as a result of the redevelopment will receive help finding new lodging. He also said that the affordable units would be spread throughout the building and that people living in those units would be able to use all of the amenities available to people paying market rates. According to Whellan, that has been an issue in some developments.

The property is in Council Member Ann Kitchen’s District 5. She said she was voting for the requested MF-6 on first reading, “with the understanding that we are going to continue to work with staff to find a route to ensure affordability is enforceable and we can be certain that we are actually going to get it on this tract. I think that the applicants are acting in good faith to ensure that we get affordable housing.”

The problem, as Atherton noted, is that the property currently has the V designation, which ensures affordable housing, and the developer is seeking to remove that designation. Kitchen concluded that the developer, the neighborhood and the law department should be working on options to ensure housing affordability before the matter comes back for second and third readings.

She concluded, “So I want to let my colleagues know if those avenues are not successful, I will likely be opposing losing the V if we can’t address and find an avenue before second reading.”

Whellan pointed out that, even after the zoning is granted, Council will still have another chance to pass judgment on the environmental aspects of the new development because under the Barton Springs redevelopment ordinance Council must approve the site plan. So it seems this case will be coming back to Council at least two more times, and possibly three.

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