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East Austin townhomes move forward with relaxed compatibility

Thursday, June 23, 2022 by Elizabeth Pagano

A plan to build townhomes in the Chestnut neighborhood is moving forward with the unanimous blessing of the Planning Commission, which granted permission to build closer to nearby homes than would normally be allowed.

Developers of the project at 1400 Cedar Ave. won a waiver from the commission to build 18 feet from the west property line and 7 feet from the north property line. Without the waiver, the project would be constrained by compatibility standards that require 25-foot setbacks designed to protect single-family homes from non-single-family uses. 

“I just don’t understand why, in this day and age, we make housing so difficult to build in this city,” Commissioner Greg Anderson said. “But I’m very thankful that Council is looking at compatibility. And I’m looking forward to each and every chance we get to waive compatibility.” 

In this case, explained Zach Savage, who was presenting on behalf of the applicant at the commission meeting, the plan is to build seven condominium townhomes on the quarter-acre site, which is presently occupied by commercial buildings.

The lot in question is almost entirely paved, with at least 97 percent impervious cover. Though they had tried to shift plans in response to suggestions from neighbors and commissioners, Savage said that the city’s Land Development Code prevented building a narrower driveway or accessing the property from the alley and that reducing the planned number of condos from seven to five “would result in five significantly larger units, all 2,300 square feet or bigger.” The current plan has homes ranging from 1,250 square feet to 1,900 square feet, which could be sold at a lower price point.

“We believe that this request is necessary to make this development work, and that the development itself will be an asset to the community,” Savage said.

Savage noted that City Council is poised to approve relaxed compatibility standards for portions of the city. While those new standards would not apply to this site, he said, “I think we can use this as a view into the future of how the city intends to unlock more housing options and combat the shortages we are currently facing.”

The project’s architect, William Lucyechoed those sentiments. “Compatibility is Austin’s way to protect single-family homes from literally any type of dissimilar development: shopping mall, auto repair, nightclub, petting zoo. It is designed with this kind of worst-case scenario in mind. Our project is a very, very long way from any of that,” he said.

Ian Zurzolo, who is a resident of the Chestnut neighborhood, lives on the same block as the proposed development and was opposed to the waiver. He told commissioners that the developer had been “very disingenuous” about the plans. “We’ve always said we’re pro-density, but within reason and with the right community spirit,” he said. “And this is just not it.”

The Chestnut Neighborhood Contact Team did not support the waiver. However, some neighbors did voice support for the project. John Laycock, who lives three blocks away from the proposed townhomes, wrote to the Planning Commission to do just that.

“Chestnut needs more developments like the proposed townhomes, not fewer. More units means more neighbors, more street interaction, more patrons of local businesses, and hopefully more kids in local AISD schools,” he wrote. “In 2019 the Planning Commission wisely voted to endorse a Land Development Code that would have broadly enabled missing-middle housing across the city, recognizing that forcing each project to get its own set of variances is a needless delay that costs units and pushes developers to instead build sterile McMansions (that do not have street trees or wide sidewalks!). In the same spirit, I would ask the commission to swiftly approve these variances. The missing-middle housing proposed is a reasonable and welcome addition to the neighborhood and it should not be held up or the unit count further reduced.”

Savage told the commission that his group had “only been open and honest” with the neighborhood association. He explained that, while they did not intend to “show something and then take it away,” further consultation with city staff had revealed the five-unit alternative design that was preferred by some neighbors wouldn’t be possible due to height restrictions.

Two commissioners who previously voted against the waiver changed their votes this time around. Commissioner Grayson Cox explained that he had changed his vote with the understanding that the waiver would only apply to the proposed site plan and would not carry over should plans change. However, he cautioned against extrapolating City Council’s vote on VMU and corridors and “blanketing that across all of our decisions related to compatibility.”

“(It) makes me a little nervous that we’re maybe stretching what some people might hope versus what Council intended,” he said. 

Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido, who spoke neutrally on her vote, said she appreciated the moderate design and unit sizes and getting more units onto the lot, though she expressed concern that granting the waiver could set a precedent. 

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