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Neighbors fight for more community benefits from huge East Austin development

Monday, November 15, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

A rezoning for a massive mixed-use development in East Austin went before the Planning Commission last Tuesday, showcasing intense negotiations between the applicant and neighbors trying to squeeze community benefits from the project.

The current proposal for the 15-acre site at 6705 and 6501 Regiene Road calls for a whopping 1 million total square feet of office, retail and restaurant space, in addition to artist workshops, a brewery and anywhere between 371 and 742 apartments – 10 percent of which will be affordable at 60 percent of the median family income.

“The project is intended to be a mixed-use hub dedicated to Austin’s creative community,” said Leah Bojo, representing the applicant. Ten thousand square feet of commercial/industrial space will also be priced affordably for local artists and businesses.

Neighbors, despite making inroads toward securing more concessions, did not support the rezoning. “We think you should deny this until there are better investments for communities of color that are left in this area,” said Nadia Barbot, co-chair of the East MLK Neighborhood Contact Team.

The change from Limited Industrial Services (LI) and Single Family-Standard Lot (SF-2) zoning to Limited Industrial Services-Planned Development Area (LI-PDA) zoning would allow 275 feet of building height near U.S. Highway 183 and 120 feet on the rest of the site. It would also double the allowable floor area ratio while cutting parking requirements in half. City staff does not support the 275-foot height allowance.

The project sits next to important multimodal infrastructure. The Walnut Creek Trail and the right of way for the future Project Connect Green Line regional rail run along the southern edge of the site. Bojo is in talks with Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority about a rail station near the development.

This isn’t the only big project in the area. Adjacent to the site is Tech 3443, a 110-acre redevelopment proposal for the former Motorola chip factory site. Council approved the rezoning for Tech 3443 last year, permitting building heights ranging from 160 to 400 feet. In this case, the developer also worked with neighbors and offered extensive concessions.

Planning commissioners supported the Regiene Road project on the whole, but had reservations about allowing industrial use so close to future homes. In a stretch of convoluted motion-making, commissioners tried to limit industrial use, but no motion had enough votes to pass. This means the rezoning moves on to City Council without a recommendation.

“It’s very complex, and it definitely deserves more public input,” Chair Todd Shaw said, adding that neighbors will have time before Council to continue negotiations.

Those talks have been ongoing for over a year. When the commission first heard the case two weeks ago, several neighborhood representatives said they were close to striking a deal with Bojo. On Tuesday, neighbors still did not support the project, despite having secured affordability and worker protections, among other concessions.

“We created a customized framework of community benefits and the developer continues to not counter or amend the project in any way,” Barbot said. “We believe the community deserves a small portion of the increased value the developer will receive with the additional height and the additional uses that this rezoning allows.”

Bojo said that the development, “even without those extra voluntary things, is an excellent asset to the community and is going to be a benefit in and of itself.” Though Bojo has declined to consider any off-site concessions the neighborhood has suggested, such as donations to local organizations, anything on-site is still on the table.

Talks will likely continue until Council takes up the case either next month or early next year.

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