Naked City

Zoned for Conflict

The view from Tillery Street: warehouse on the right, neighborhood on the left
The view from Tillery Street: warehouse on the right, neighborhood on the left (Photo By John Anderson)

Just east of Pleasant Valley Road, in the heart of the Govalle neighborhood, there's a zoning battle bubbling on narrow, tree-lined Tillery Street. At issue is whether a warehouse at 618 Tillery should be the subject of "rollback" zoning, which would change the 80,000 square-foot site from light industrial zoning (LI) to single family zoning (SF-3). The warehouse sits directly across the street from Brook Elementary School and shares the rest of Tillery with numerous cottage-like houses. Neighbors have said the rumbling of 18-wheeler trucks entering and exiting the property makes them "prisoners" in their homes and more importantly, poses a safety risk to the kids at the elementary school.

The question of whether the site should be re-zoned was posed by the City Council late last year, made its way to the planning commission early this year and just last month was sent back to City Council from the commission -- without a recommendation. "Really what we wanted to do is send the message to council that the city needs more of a plan for this site," said Jean Mather, who has served on the planning commission off and on for the past 30 years. "It's really the kind of thing that needs to be studied." Mather added she supports the rollback to SF-3.

The immediate problem, says Susana Almanza, who heads the East Austin environmental group People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources (PODER), is that the current set-up is dangerous for the neighbors, especially the elementary school students, whose playground is directly south of the warehouse. "We have all this industrial stuff mix-matched," she said. "It's pretty hazardous." Indeed, the houses on Tillery were built on land initially zoned for industrial use back in the 1930s. The area was finally rezoned as single family in 1999.

Tom Calhoon, who owns the Tillery warehouse property, said he has been working with the neighborhood to try and appease their concerns about the site while still keeping it profitable for his business. He has turned down numerous offers to lease the building, he said, most notably to Mrs. Baird's Bread, because the proposed operations would begin in the middle of the night and would require heavy truck activity. But other plans that would be less intrusive and would not require rezoning -- like the proposed relocation of Habitat for Humanity's warehouse (currently housed at East Third and Chicon) to the site -- also drew fire from the neighbors, he said. "We have to figure out what we can do positive for the neighborhood with that building there, and there is an answer," he said. "I'm willing to deal with it, but all I do is get in trouble when all I am doing is leasing warehouse space in a warehouse space."

Indeed, the case could be made that the Tillery zoning battle has less to do with this site in particular than it does with historically racist zoning practices the city set into motion beginning in 1928. To get around a Supreme Court decision that outlawed "racial zoning," the city decided instead to concentrate services for African-Americans and Hispanics in East Austin -- in effect to keep these populations from moving west of I-35. In a study of race relations in Austin released in September 2000 by UT's LBJ School of Public Affairs, researchers found that, "by concentrating various services for Blacks in East Austin … the plan used service delivery to accomplish what zoning laws constitutionally could not." Moreover, researchers found city planners also designated East Austin for industrial zoning and "allowed industries to abut residential areas."

"And we've been stuck with that kind of zoning ever since," said Mather. "It has caused lots of problems for many years. [Calhoon] is not the villain, in any sense of the word. The real villain is the city for creating this kind of zoning, and it's their responsibility to try and get out of it." Almanza agrees that the uproar over the Tillery site really is more of an overall equity issue. "They blanket-zoned East Austin. You look at all the maps and they say it's industrial, but really there are all these houses and neighborhoods," she said. "It's the whole issue of equity."

Ultimately, Almanza said, she would like to see the city buy Calhoon's property and turn it into housing. Mather said buying the property might be the only way for the city to roll the site's zoning back to SF-3. "Otherwise the city is likely to be sued for doing it. Calhoon has the zoning right now, and they can't just take it away from him."

The Tillery zoning issue was scheduled to go before the City Council again yesterday.

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