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Zoning battle ends in victory for Grady and Brownie project

Tuesday, March 29, 2022 by Kali Bramble

More condos and retail space are coming to North Austin following City Council’s approval of a contentious zoning case last Thursday.

Despite neighborhood opposition backed by a valid petition, Council unanimously approved zoning changes for the Grady & Brownie mixed-use project on Brownie Drive and Middle Fiskville Road. The supermajority vote will rezone two lots from single-family and neighborhood commercial to low-density multifamily and commercial mixed-use, respectively.

The case has had a long and controversial journey that began with its application filed in March of last year. The project galvanized significant community opposition in the following months, strengthened by allegations that the developer had leveraged language barriers at a nearby household to weaken the neighborhood’s petition.

Previously, a conflict between the lot’s 1967 deed restriction, which reserves the land for commercial use, and its single-family zoning status prevented anything from being built on the site. Following Council’s action, developers intend to bring both commercial space and around 35 housing units to the empty lot, with 10 percent priced at affordable to those making 80-100 percent of the median family income.

Neighbors cite myriad concerns about the development, arguing that it provides insufficient community benefits and will exacerbate patterns of gentrification and environmental degradation in North Austin.

“This is a working-class neighborhood of color, a very diverse neighborhood, where people work very hard against long odds to buy a home and build a community,” local attorney Fred Lewis said. “If this condo is allowed, the area’s property will appreciate … and you will accelerate the displacement of these working-class people.”

“Even some of my friends who work for the city now live in places like Georgetown or Buda, and have to take on the burden of commuting,” Taylor Lang of Go Austin/Vamos Austin said. “This directly impacts our ability to contribute to city taxes, participate in the local economy and send our kids to Austin’s wonderful schools, which is increasingly important as AISD struggles with enrollment numbers, hemorrhaging students to factors like displacement and charter schools that drastically affect funding.”

Others voiced concern about the development’s reinforcement of poor drainage infrastructure and lack of green space. “We are a dense and concrete area with minorly impactful green space … and we need more than a few trees and thirsty grass,” North Austin Civic Association Vice President Jessica Robertson said. “There aren’t enough of these spaces, and what we have isn’t enough to protect us from being several degrees hotter than other areas of Austin during the worst parts of the summer.”

Despite the abundance of testimony, the philosophy that more housing is better than no housing ultimately prevailed.

This is empty land right next to IH-35, and leaving it abandoned concerns me,” said Council Member Chito Vela, whose district encompasses the project. “Gentrification is ongoing … but at this point I don’t think the price point of these condos will be that different from the current price point of single-family homes.”

Still, Council members recognized the project’s shortcomings. “When I look at the affordability of these units I do find it very underwhelming,” said Council Member Alison Alter, who opposed the zoning change on its first reading last year. “I would urge the development community to understand that in the future I will need to see a much more compelling case made for affordability to earn my support.”

In the end, Council approved a change to Multifamily zoning (MF-2) for the four lots on Brownie Lane and Commercial Services/Mixed-Use zoning (CS-MU-CO) for the three lots on Middle Fiskville. The approved zoning struck a compromise between the requested zoning and staff’s recommendation by adding a conditional overlay (CO) that limited the allowed uses on the Middle Fiskville tracts. (The list of prohibited uses was amended to remove daycare uses.)

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here. This story has been changed since publication to add the specific zoning change approved by Council.

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