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East 12th Street rezoning wins final approval

Wednesday, September 27, 2023 by Jo Clifton

City Council gave final approval last week to a major change in land use on East 12th Street from commercial to mixed use, including an increase in height limits from 40 feet to 60 feet. The properties in question are within Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison’s district, and she strongly defended her support for the changes for 3117 and 3121 E. 12th St.

The vote was 10-0, with Council Member Chito Vela off the dais. He was also off the dais when Council approved the change on first reading two weeks ago.

While some neighborhood advocates argued against the change, which also required an amendment to the Rosewood Neighborhood Plan, others offered their support. Ahmad Ahmed, who lives in the McKinley Heights neighborhood next to the proposed development, told Council that “12th Street is currently littered with empty lots and dilapidated properties.”

“Relaxed zoning will incentivize developers to develop on these properties,” he continued. “Moreover, denser, taller construction on a major east-west urban corridor like 12th Street allows for … more housing supply, which helps alleviate the housing affordability issues in East Austin.”

In addition, Ahmed said the changes would allow for “more lifestyle retail in our neighborhoods such as grocery stores, restaurants, barbershops and coffee shops” and encourage use of existing public transportation in the area.

Four members of the Rosewood Neighborhood Contact Team wrote a letter to Council opposing changes to the neighborhood plan and questioning whether the applicant, Geyser Group, planned to build anything, suggesting that they were “seeking entitlement increases to attract investment and/or more profitable financing.” Jane Rivera, Gilbert Rivera, Christopher Page and Jenny Grayson noted that they had met with the applicant in meetings facilitated by Harper-Madison’s office.

Page appeared in person at Thursday’s meeting, angrily denouncing the zoning changes and implying that Council was being influenced by developer money. He also said the city had wrongly rejected the neighborhood’s valid petition. However, that would have made no difference in the outcome because of the unanimous vote. The valid petition would have required nine Council members to approve the change instead of six.

One of those speaking in favor of the change read a letter from longtime area resident Louis Herrera. In that letter, Herrera said that he lives on Oak Springs Drive in a house where he grew up and his family has lived for the past 80 years.

“I’ve seen a lot of change over the years, and have been actively involved in the neighborhood’s development. In fact, I was part of the group that crafted the current Rosewood Neighborhood Plan,” he wrote. “I have personally met with the applicant and I agree that their plan for the property is better than what could be done today under the current zoning. The 40-foot height limitation that we put in place for the Rosewood Neighborhood Plan roughly 20 years ago is no longer proper for that site. I believe the 12th Street corridor is an area well suited for a project with more height. I also am a fan of the project’s plan to include affordable housing.”

Most of those speaking in favor of the new zoning thanked Harper-Madison and her staff for facilitating meetings between representatives of the developer and neighborhood residents.

Harper-Madison expressed her discomfort from the many thanks that she had received from lawyers and developer’s representatives.

“I only introduced you to my staff so they could help facilitate a connection with the community – exclusively. So please don’t step up there and thank me. You already heard what they said about me. I’m a developer’s shill apparently – which I’m not. I’m a hometown girl and there’s not a single person who runs for office who doesn’t take money from developers at some point. Campaigns run on money. You gotta take money. So, please stop thanking me.

“As this dais, my community and the neighborhood knows, I’ve been a staunch supporter of increasing access to housing, especially when there will be income-restricted units on-site. The property is near transit and there are no existing residents. I repeat, there are no existing residents being displaced by the new development. There are no houses there. This rezoning allows for that opportunity.”

To those who disagreed, Harper-Madison said, “I absolutely hear you. I just think that given the alternative this is a good project. The alternative is that it sits there and it languishes. I’m from the 12th Street area, I’m from that neighborhood. And if I agree with the development, I’m telling you that if I think it’s a good idea and my family thinks it’s a good idea, I think that it that should be taken into consideration.”

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