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ZAP votes against rezoning for affordable housing project, the Rhett

Friday, October 22, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

The Zoning and Platting Commission Tuesday recommended denying a rezoning for the Rhett, an affordable housing project at 1000 East Yager Lane in North Austin. 

The commission’s vote comes as the city falls short on its affordable housing production goals. ZAP also recently failed to recommend a rezoning for a separate affordable housing project. 

All of the Rhett’s 215 units will be available to those making between 50 and 60 percent of the area median family income. The project plans to apply for low-income housing tax credits or affordable housing bond money in addition to participating in Affordability Unlocked, a city-run program designed to give affordable housing projects more entitlements.

The applicant, Zydeco Development Corporation, requests Community Commercial-Mixed-Use (GR-MU) zoning for 2.68 acres of a 5-acre site zoned Neighborhood Commercial (LR). The only reason for the request is to accommodate roof design elements that narrowly exceed the 60-foot height cap under LR zoning. If City Council approves the rezoning, the rest of the site will remain LR. 

Ron Thrower, representing the applicant, told the Austin Monitor that rezoning seemed like the best way to get a better design. Other options, like asking the Board of Adjustment for a height variance or hoping city staff interpret the code in a way that allows the design elements, seemed more fraught. The project can still proceed without the rezoning – just with different design elements.

Commissioner Betsy Greenberg motioned to deny the request. “I don’t think a design element is a reason for zoning change,” she said. 

Commissioner Hank Smith objected. “The motion is basing a land-use decision on a site plan that may or may not ever be built,” he said, arguing that GR zoning is appropriate because the property next door is zoned GR. 

Smith tried a substitute motion to recommend approval, but it failed. Commissioners then voted 6-3-1 to recommend denying the rezoning.

Commissioners seemed to be swayed not only by Greenberg’s reasoning but also by arguments from the neighbors in opposition. The four neighbors who spoke listed various reasons to deny the rezoning, including building height, loss of privacy and lack of off-street parking. But their main argument was that the project would increase traffic on a dangerous road with no sidewalks where a 15-year-old boy was hit and killed by a motorist in 2019. 

“Until these East Yager Lane pedestrian and traffic safety issues are resolved, honestly, not another site and building permit should be approved for the area,” neighbor Tarik Aossey said.

Thrower said the uses allowed under the current zoning – a restaurant or drug store, for example – would likely generate more car trips than the proposed residential building.

Though the city plans to expand East Yager Lane and add sidewalks, there is no timeline yet. The Rhett will only build sidewalks on its road frontage, as required by code. 

All the neighbors who spoke said that they do support affordable housing, just not in this particular location. “We’re not against affordable housing development in our neighborhood,” Aossey said, “but we are against any development that further puts the health and welfare of our community at risk.”

Photo caption: Rendering of the Rhett, with the roof design elements in question, by hatch + ulland owen architects. Rendering courtesy Thrower Design. 

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