The council approves on first reading an East Austin apartment complex 500 feet away from a plant where toxic chemicals are stored, but some council members are promising to scuttle the project if it comes back for final approval.
Before hatching speculative projects in industrial East Austin, affordable housing developers might want to consider placing a call to the Austin Fire Department, especially if the site lies in the shadow of a bottled-gas supplier. Testimony from an AFD engineer at last Thursday's City Council meeting kicked the legs out from under a 112-unit apartment complex proposed on Montopolis Drive. The venture, were it built, could stake a claim for residential development in the heart of an industrial zone dominated by SEMATECH, Praxair Distribution, and Advanced Micro Devices. But the council was not inclined to grant the requisite zoning change, from light industrial to multifamily use, after hearing about the dangers of hydrogen chloride, acetylene, and silane, a gas that can "explode on contact with air," stored only 500 feet away at Praxair. Council did grant the change on first reading only, clearing the way for the developer, Rudy Belton, to apply for a federal tax-credit subsidy. But Mayor Kirk Watson and two council members said if the project comes back for final approval they won't vote for it, leaving the Montopolis Townhomes without the six votes needed to overcome a petition filed against it by neighboring landowners.
Neighborhood activists were incensed that the council didn't embrace the development, which promised spacious units at reduced rents for an area that's seen mostly the greasy side of Austin's high-tech engine. Planning Commissioner Susana Almanza, who also heads People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources (PODER), praised the proposed complex as an opportunity to "change the dynamics of East Austin" by helping contain the expansion of warehouses and manufacturing plants. The developer's engineering consultant, John Noell of Urban Design Group, argued that the apartments would provide a transitional buffer between Praxair and undeveloped single-family lots to the north. Advocates added that a V.A. clinic already sits right beside Praxair.
But council members couldn't miss the irony of neighborhood leaders who once chased recycling plants and fuel depots out of their midst arguing that Southeast Austin residents would benefit from apartments located well inside a hazardous chemical evacuation zone. "If we vote to put affordable housing next to ... dangerous chemicals, we're creating a situation which we're working very hard to undo in other parts of East Austin," said Council Member Daryl Slusher, who voted against the zoning change.
After the vote, with Council Member Will Wynn also pledging his opposition to the project, Noell said that the landowners surrounding the proposed Montopolis Townhomes had organized against the project because they didn't want residential development interfering with industrial expansion. Noell said he would ask council members to consider removing the chemical hazards at Praxair rather than killing off his project. New Council Member Raul Alvarez, noting that the proposed site is surrounded by hundreds of acres more suitable for apartments, said he hoped the city's housing office could help developers locate better sites in the future.
In a brighter development, the council voted to cede recently vacated city land at Tillery and Oak Springs to the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development office, which plans to turn it over to the nonprofit Volunteers of America to build an apartment complex subsidized for poor elderly residents.
Also, Alvarez initiated a scrap over a $2 million contract recommended by city staff for Carollo Engineers to expand the Ullrich Water Treatment Plant. Another bidder, Camp, Dresser and McKee, now operates the plant, but scored lower than Carollo on a scoring matrix designed to give an edge to contractors who've done less work for the city in the past. Alvarez questioned whether that matrix determined the right firm for the job this time, however, and the mayor and others chimed in with similar comments that culminated in a 4-3 vote in favor of Camp, Dresser and McKee, and an order to City Manager Jesus Garza to revisit the scoring formula. Carollo representatives say they'll appeal the decision. Council Member Beverly Griffith, who along with Wynn and Danny Thomas voted to award the contract to Carollo, said the city would be wiser to spread its work to as many quality contractors as possible given the current high demand for their services.
This Week in Council
Today, June 29, council has a blockbuster agenda in what will be their last meeting for over a month: