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Planning Commission nearly derails East Austin townhome project 

Friday, May 27, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

A townhome project requesting to build closer to single-family homes than typically allowed nearly fell through Tuesday, when the Planning Commission lacked enough votes to approve the requested variance.  

The developer of the seven-unit project at 1400 Cedar Ave. originally asked to build within five feet of its north and west property line – closer than the 25-foot setback required for non-single-family uses next to single-family homes. 

In April, following testimony from three neighbors opposed to the variance, commissioners suggested that the applicant rework the proposal to create a minimum 12.5-foot setback. 

Agent Alejandra Flores said after testing site plans with varying setbacks, “seven foot is the most we can do.” While the development team had tried to appease neighbors and commissioners with a five-unit project with greater setbacks, they said the project needs seven units to be financially viable. Current plans show a 7-foot setback to the north and an 18-foot setback to the west. 

Neighbor Ian Zurzolo requested a monthlong postponement after thinking the developer had decided on a site plan with greater setbacks. “This was a complete shock and a surprise, and quite frankly felt like we were hoodwinked by the applicant,” Zurzolo said. Travis Lucy, the project architect, said, “There was no intent to deceive anybody with the alternative schemes.” 

The commission denied Zurzolo’s postponement request and heard the case. In a presentation to the commission, Lucy emphasized that the project is more compatible with the neighborhood than other uses currently allowed on the site, which is zoned Commercial Services-Vertical Mixed-Use (CS-MU-V-CO-NP). 

“As compared with some of the CS acceptable zoning uses that could be here, this is housing for families – it’s a much quieter, low-intensity kind of use,” Lucy said, adding that the project will reduce impervious cover and generate far less traffic than commercial use – a major concern from neighbors opposed. The lot is currently vacant but was most recently home to metalworking shops.

Commissioners discussed how affordable the townhomes would be, in response to a neighbor who commented that the townhomes wouldn’t be affordable enough. Commissioner Awais Azhar guessed that based on the single-family home next door – appraised at nearly $1 million – the townhomes would likely be relatively affordable for the neighborhood, given their size and that they would share a lot with other units. Lucy said floor plans ranged from 1,600 to 2,100 square feet.

Commissioner Grayson Cox couldn’t think of a rationale to grant the exception. “I’m trying to understand why we would approve of a waiver here and then not just have that be basically a blanket waiver for all situations like this,” he said. 

The commission, short five members, voted 6-0-2 to approve the waiver with Cox and Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido abstaining –one vote shy of a majority. 

In order to save the project – over which the Planning Commission has the final say – Commissioner Greg Anderson moved to postpone the case to June 14. 

“We’re down a lot of members. It’s late. Let’s just look at it again instead of killing housing,” Anderson said. His motion passed unanimously.

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