Thursday, September 29, 2022 by Jonathan Lee
The Planning Commission on Tuesday recommended approval of vertical mixed-use (VMU) zoning for a property along East Cesar Chavez Street, moving a proposed mixed-use residential development one step further.
The project at 3020 E. Cesar Chavez St. could have approximately 185 housing units – 19 of which would be affordable at 60% of median family income – with VMU1 zoning requested. Leah Bojo, representing the rezoning applicant, said the project is still in the early planning stages.
Under current General Commercial Services Mixed Use (CS-MU-CO-NP) zoning, the project would likely have 90 units, none of which would be priced below market. A circa 1980s office building currently sits on the 2.4 acre site.
Daniel Llanes, chair of the Govalle/Johnston Terrace Neighborhood Plan Contact Team, spoke out against the rezoning. Llanes feared setting VMU zoning precedent on Cesar Chavez, thereby turning the street into “anywhere in the United States.” He argued that Airport Boulevard and East Seventh Street are the only streets in the neighborhood suitable for VMU.
The contact team refused to allow VMU on Cesar Chavez during an opt-in, opt-out process in 2008, when the city created VMU. Since then, City Council has approved VMU zoning for several properties along Cesar Chavez.
“Austin was a very different place in 2008,” Bojo said. “While the median house price and average rent have more than doubled (since), the median income of a single person has increased by less than 12%.”
Llanes said he would only support a project with more affordable housing. “There are very few people who can afford to live in my neighborhood who are from my neighborhood… How about 40% units at 35-50% (IMF)? It’s really affordable.
Projects with affordable units of the type described by Llanes usually require government subsidies.
Without compatibility, a rule that limits the height of buildings near single-family homes, the project could have included even more affordable units, and potentially at a higher level of affordability.
The newly created VMU2 zoning allows building heights of 90 feet, provided that 12% of the units are affordable at 60% MFI or 10% of the units are affordable at 50% MFI. But VMU2 doesn’t work on the site because compatibility (triggered by Second Street and Cesar Chavez single-family homes) limits building height to 55 feet. Without compatibility, the project could have 270 units, including 40 affordable ones, Bojo said.
Commissioner Greg Anderson moved to recommend approval of the rezoning. In doing so, he lambasted compatibility and the neighborhood planning process.
“How do we tolerate (compatibility) another day in this town?” he said, pointing to the high housing prices in East Austin that he says are due in part to such regulations.
Anderson also said, “Does it make sense for us to have a neighborhood association president for 19 years?” referring to Llanes. “That might be one of the things that gets the city auditor to call our neighborhood planning processes, our neighborhood plans are horrible,” he added in reference to a 2016 audit. .
Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido, Llanes’ daughter, stepped in to defend the contact team.
“East Austin is sky-high now, but it’s absorbed a huge amount of development,” Llanes Pulido said. She explained that the contact team is made up of several people with generational ties to East Austin and that the team has negotiated with the city on dozens of rezonings that have led to victories for all parties involved.
The commission voted 7-1-1, with Llanes Pulido against and Commissioner Grayson Cox abstaining, to recommend that city council approve the rezoning. The Council is due to discuss the matter on October 27.
Photo caption: A view from East Cesar Chavez Street towards the site, which currently houses a 1980s office building.
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Posted in: Planning, District 3
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