Neighborhoods of Austin, beware! A new species of duplex standing as tall as 40 feet, housing as many as 12 residents, and showing no inclination to blend into its surroundings has been spotted in the North University area. Three of the invading domiciles, rising three stories high on exposed steel legs and painted in Play-Doh colors, have infested two lots on Speedway between 34th and 35th streets. Others may follow, and so far the city is powerless to stop them.
Members of the North University Neighborhood Association (NUNA) are still reeling from the shock of being so quickly overrun. NUNA member Robert Kaler says the invasion came with no warning from the city, not even a sign on the lot announcing the imminent removal of the previous house. Neighbors watched helplessly as trees were felled, machinery churned through the night, and the eerie metal girders were lifted aloft. They phoned civil authorities, but to no avail.
It seems the builders had discovered a loophole in the city's zoning system that allowed them to rapidly breach the Development Review and Inspection Department's ramparts of red tape. Because the structures were fitted with only two kitchens apiece, DRID officials say, they were legally duplexes and therefore not required to show site plans or proof of neighborhood compatibility like other commercial buildings. City planning commissioners say by month's end they'll unveil a zoning overlay to plug that security gap, but the City Council would have to approve its use.
Hyde Park Neighborhood Association president Jeff Woodruff, a veteran of hard-fought campaigns to block strip malls and Protestant parking garages near his own home, says so-called duplexes like those on Speedway could seriously corrode the city's inner-city neighborhoods if they're allowed to spread. "This won't be permitted in the future," Woodruff says defiantly, pointing up at the hulking tenements. "This cannot be our affordable housing."
Planning Commissioner Ben Heimsath says neighborhoods are not presently in danger of being overrun by a swarm of similar Trojan houses, but the rules do need tightening. Heimsath has proposed an ordinance that would require duplexes planned on property zoned for apartments, such as the lots at 3410 and 3412 Speedway, to comply with density standards applied to single-family zoning. That wouldn't stop landowners from building rooming houses, says DRID staffer Katherine Loayza, but it would limit their size and require submission of a site plan, giving neighborhoods more heads-up. NUNA members say they were most frustrated by their inability to get information about the Speedway project while it was going up. But with no site plan in its possession, the city had little to offer them.
Austin Neighborhoods Council president Will Bozeman says it's unusual for developers to come in under neighborhoods' radar, but the results can be "degrading." "The better part of the development community never tries to get by with this. Most of them are forthcoming. But bottom-feeder developers create problems for everybody," Bozeman says.
Heimsath notes that given the city's limited ability to enforce residential codes, no ordinance will likely prevent duplexes from filling with illegal renters. But in the coming months, the City Council will be weighing options to enhance neighborhood control over what kinds of new structures get built. In December, the Planning Commission signed off on a proposed ordinance that would allow the city to loosen or waive zoning rules on particular lots depending on what individual neighborhoods say their preferred uses are. With such a surgical tool, Woodruff says, NAs could block incompatible uses without forcing their preferences onto other neighborhoods across town.
"We should not be so narrow-minded as to say this is inherently evil," Woodruff says of the Speedway project, "but we've got to consider the context. ... We want duplexes, we want garage apartments, but we want to decide what is appropriate for our neighborhood."
University-area neighborhoods will be holding their breath in the meantime, hoping that the loophole cannily discovered by the landowners on Speedway, Gary and Robyn Gill of Austin, won't be heavily exploited. According to the Travis Central Appraisal District, the Gills have purchased and renovated two other UT-area properties besides the Speedway lots in the past five years, and in February of last year purchased one more, at 1006 W. 22nd, on which sits an old and dilapidated house -- a property seemingly prime for renovation.