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ZAP recommends fraction of proposed units for Northwest Austin tract

Thursday, June 30, 2022 by Elizabeth Pagano

District 6 saw a return to its roots at the most recent meeting of the Zoning and Platting Commission, where a multifamily project dubbed the Zimmerman was the focus of discussion at City Hall.

Currently, 11400 Zimmerman Lane is zoned Development Reserve, which is intended as a placeholder that does not commit land to any particular use or density, though it does allow for one home every 10 acres. Applicants Udaya and Uma Kumar would like to see that changed to multifamily (MF-3) zoning in order to construct a 150-unit complex on the 7.63-acre site, which is currently undeveloped. 

That request proved too much for ZAP commissioners, who voted 7-4 to recommend SF-6 zoning and a cap of 32 units on the site. Commissioners Nadia Barrera-Ramirez, Hank Smith, Cesar Acosta and Lonny Stern voted in opposition, after previously voting in favor of a failed, similar recommendation for SF-6 that did not include a unit cap.

“I would say, in general, I’m a big fan of increasing the amount of housing in the city. … That said, multifamily belongs on corridors with transit service,” Stern said. “If we build a ton of apartments in this area, there is no guarantee that something in the ETJ is going to have transit …. And certainly there is no guarantee that there will be improvements to the road because it’s a state road.”

Matt Johnson, who is a resident of the only other development on Zimmerman Lane – the Woods at Four Points – said he was opposed to multifamily zoning on the land “due to the grave traffic safety concerns that currently exist and would only be exacerbated with the rezoning and development of the applicants’ intended 150-unit project.” His concerns were echoed by a number of his neighbors who also showed up to speak in opposition to the zoning change.

Johnson said the intersection at Zimmerman Lane and FM 620 is dangerous and congested at all hours of the day. He explained that motorists on the street were forced to make dangerous turns onto the road, unsafe U-turns further down the road, and often cut through the Rudy’s BBQ parking lot to avoid the traffic that has backed up.

Ellen McKinney, who also lives in the development, told commissioners her firefighter husband had switched stations to avoid being called to car crashes involving his friends and neighbors.

From his perspective, Commissioner Acosta said concerns over traffic safety should be tempered with the fact that preventing development would increase housing costs in the city.  

“This is a very real, very valid concern about access and safety on this road, but I don’t want to prevent development on this tract because … that will increase a problem that we’re already facing with housing,” he said. “We’re trying to do this balance of making sure that neighbors and areas are safe and that people in the city can live here.”

Chair Barrera-Ramirez acknowledged that there had been a number of bad crashes at the intersection, according to the city’s Vision Zero dashboard, but noted that there was little the city could do to improve an intersection that was partially controlled by the state transportation department. She concurred with other commissioners that new development was probably the best chance for the neighborhood to see improvements to the intersection and she supported the staff recommendation of SF-6 without an additional unit cap.

“At one point, there was nothing here. So the fact that the new guys are saying, ‘We want to restrict more people from coming in’ – I think that’s a challenging argument as well,” she said. “There has been a precedent set.”

The Woods at Four Points is itself a relatively new development that was in the process of being built as recently as 2018. Sherri Sirwaitis, who is managing the case for the city’s Planning and Development Review Department, told the commission that city staff had not recommended the current zoning for the Woods at Four Points at the time, but a less-intense zoning category.

“We knew that we had an issue with an inferior roadway that had no plans to be improved,” she said. She explained that the Balcones Canyonlands Conservation Plan land at the end of Zimmerman Lane further complicated matters because it’s home to populations of endangered golden-cheeked warblers and salamanders, limiting the road improvements that can be done.

As for the current recommendation, Sirwaitis said critical environmental features, compatibility standards and Hill Country Roadway regulations combined present a number of development limitations on the property. So, in this case, staffers were more comfortable recommending SF-6 zoning, which is designed to offer the flexibility to cluster buildings on land that inherently has development constraints.

“As you know, under SF-6, there is no unit max,” she said. “But with all these other factors … it was already going to be limited as to what they can fit on there anyway.”

Alice Glasco, who was representing the prospective buyer, said that the city’s transportation staff saw this case as “an opportunity” because the road has been classified a “level 2” road under the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan. Under the plan, she explained, the city has called for improvements to the road and sidewalks. In addition, they would be looking at how to improve the intersection with TxDOT. 

“There are opportunities for us to partner with the city and TxDOT to help alleviate or improve the problems being experienced there. The exploration of those improvements would occur, obviously, at the time of site plan, not zoning, but obviously we can still have a dialogue now,” Glasco said. 

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