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Setback controversy delays East Austin townhomes

Tuesday, April 19, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

A developer planning to build seven townhomes in the Chestnut neighborhood ran into opposition April 12, as neighbors and members of the Planning Commission opposed a request to build closer to single-family homes than allowed by city code. 

Developer Urban Gravity hopes the city will approve a 5-foot setback from adjacent homes instead of the 25-foot setback that currently applies. According to the development team, the project at 1400 and 1402 Cedar Avenue won’t work without the variance.

Denise Villa, president of Urban Gravity, insisted that the townhomes would blend into the mostly single-family residential neighborhood, especially when compared to commercial use, which is also allowed with the site’s Vertical-Mixed Use (CS-MU-V-CO-NP) zoning.

“When we bought this land, we really wanted to take into appreciation the neighborhood,” Villa said. “I knew it was commercial space, but I didn’t want to do that – I really wanted to build a beautiful place for residential and bring in some density into the area.”

But density worries some neighbors. “This would be a monstrosity – and not just one (unit) but seven,” Caitlin Fennessy said. 

Neighbors say the decreased setbacks would hurt the neighborhood’s character. “Eliminating that 25-foot setback and reducing it to five feet – it completely changes the look of the neighborhood,” Ian Zurzolo said. Fennessy agreed: “Most of (the homes) are set quite far back and have yards that children play in and that dogs and animals play in. Neighbors say hello to each other when they walk down the street.” 

Residents also feared increased traffic would make neighborhood streets less safe. “We feel as a neighborhood that development is always welcome,” Zurzolo said, “however, we just want to have more communication and to make sure that our residents are safe.”

Villa argued that a commercial use would bring much more traffic than seven townhomes. “I really feel that this keeps the integrity of that area,” she said. 

Commissioner James Shieh agreed with neighbors that a 5-foot setback would be out of place, but his motion to deny the request did not get enough votes to pass. Shieh tried another motion to allow a 12.5-foot setback, but city staffers said the commission could only approve or deny the applicant’s request. Shieh’s third go at a motion – to postpone the case by two weeks so Villa could ask for setbacks greater than 5 feet – passed unanimously.

While everyone got on board with a postponement, some indicated they would have liked to approve the proposal as-is. “Having townhomes – ‘missing middle’ (housing) – in an existing neighborhood, that’s the kind of density that we as Austin are gonna have to find places for,” Commissioner Jeff Thompson said. 

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