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Planning Commission supports VMU zoning for 51st Street property

Tuesday, May 31, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

The Planning Commission on May 24 endorsed Vertical-Mixed Use (VMU) zoning for a parcel along East 51st Street where a developer plans to build up to 249 residential units. 

The rezoning concerns a 4-acre tract at 5525 E. 51st St., near U.S. Highway 183. Ledgestone Development Group requests to add a VMU designation to the Commercial Services-Mixed Use (CS-MU-CO-NP) zoned site, which is currently vacant. 

With two neighbors speaking in support (and none against), the case was mostly uncontroversial – except for city staffers’ opposition to the rezoning. 

Heather Chaffin, the manager for the case, said that VMU, which allows dense buildings and offers reduced parking requirements, doesn’t make sense in an area with little access to public transit. 

“The development on this site is probably going to be largely automobile-oriented,” Chaffin said, adding, “Under VMU, the property could get a 40 percent (parking) reduction, which is intended for areas where transit and other transportation options are available.” The nearest bus stop, she said, is a mile away.

Alice Glasco, representing the developer, argued that bus stops are actually closer than a mile because of a pedestrian path that connects to East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, where buses run. Glasco also pointed to a recent VMU rezoning on Springdale Road that staff had recommended despite there being no bus service nearby. 

Without the rezoning, Glasco said that only 217 units could be built and none would be affordable. With VMU, 10 percent of the units are required to be affordable. 

Chair Todd Shaw questioned city staffers’ determination. “I see this is an Imagine Austin corridor, and to me it’s very simple – corridors equal VMU …. Isn’t the vision that one day this would support more transit? Isn’t that the kind of long-term goal with establishing these corridors?” 

“There are things that are goals and things that are desired,” Chaffin said, “but when we’re reviewing this zoning case, I think we were focused more on the existing improvements.”

“At some point it is kind of like a chicken-and-egg thing,” Commissioner Jeff Thompson said. He agreed with Shaw that VMU makes sense for the site and may even help bring transit service to the street. 

Neighbors who spoke in favor said a VMU-style building, which would include ground-floor retail, would be welcome in their neighborhood. “We’re grateful that especially the retail, which is one of our highest priorities, is able to happen, because there’s very little retail options in the area,” said Nadia Barbot with the Pecan Springs-Springdale Hills Neighborhood Association. 

The commission voted 8-0, with five members off the dais or absent, to recommend VMU zoning. 

“Hopefully staff can start to weigh the value of the housing in density bonus programs when making these decisions as well,” Commissioner Greg Anderson said.

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