Drag Development Villa-fied

The Villas on Guadalupe goes back to the drawing board.

UT-area neighborhood activists, especially members of the North University Neighborhood Association, have spent the past few months worrying that a "New Triangle" development has landed on their doorstep in the form of the Villas on Guadalupe: an apartment-house development proposed for a triangular plot between the Drag and Hemphill Park. Villas on Guadalupe Limited -- mainly represented by property owner Brad Zucker and real estate consultant and project applicant Mike McHone -- hoped to erect a high-density housing and a six-story parking garage on the 2.4 acre-site, currently occupied by a Blockbuster video store, an historic building, an office complex, and vacant lots. At the Nov. 8 City Council meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman moved to reduce the number of units and restrict the development's height to 40 feet at the northern end, allowing for a gradual, 20-foot increase farther south along Guadalupe. Council approved, sending the Villas back to the Zoning and Platting Commission as a new zoning case.

The decision pleased NUNA, which opposed the Villas due to its proposed precedent-setting, high (MF6-CO) zoning standard. The original design and mass, problematic zoning boundaries, insufficient parking, inadequate traffic management, and threat to neighborhood character also provoked NUNA's opposition (the association would prefer to see a mixed-use development on the site). "Obviously, Council recognized the deficiencies in the developer's project," said NUNA's Suzanne Pringle. Student housing on the site is fine, she said, but at least it should be compatible with Hemphill Park's eastern side -- a gateway to the neighborhood. "The project will benefit everyone around here," said Pringle, "if more thought is put into it."

Although McHone said he's also pleased with council's decision, and has provided a new survey of the property to city staff, as of press time he had not confirmed his agreement with council's decision. Despite a friendly mediation session among concerned stakeholders last week before the council vote, NUNA attorney Rachael Rawlins said McHone had been "very resistant" to modifying the plan. While Thursday's council vote signals what Rawlins called "a step in the right direction," major questions remain. NUNA hopes the Villas redesign will include two access points to the garage, centrally locate it within the site's readjusted boundaries, and provide additional spaces. Based on current projections, approximately 500 occupants will compete for 395 spaces. "Any time you add 500 people to a one-acre site, that's going to add traffic," Pringle said. "We're estimating that 90% of residents will have cars, because it's a luxury-type apartment complex."

But McHone argues that the Villas' garage already exceeds city code requirements by 20%. "We're not going to be able to provide parking for everyone who wants to park in the neighborhood," he said, adding that he hopes Villas residents will leave their cars with mom and walk or use mass transit. In addition to spaciousness, sprinkler systems, elevators, decorative street lighting, and other amenities, the Villas would provide that convenience. "I'm for building places where people can walk to where they want to go," McHone said.

At council's Nov. 1 public hearing, UT students testified in favor of the project. Student Government President Matt Hammond, who interprets some of NUNA's opposition to the Villas as "not pro-student," praised the development's location. "Given the choices before us [the owner previously considered building a hotel on the property] -- if traffic's going to be worse than it is, if it's going to be 'less worse,' then that's the best we can hope for."

But how many students will be able to afford Villas rents? While 5% of Villas units will meet affordable housing requirements, McHone said, average rent would cost "$450 a bed." Several NUNA members say McHone initially described the project as upscale, with single bedrooms starting at $900. At that rate, most students would have to share bedrooms.

"Everyone talks about affordability," McHone laments, "but you pay for the planning process, then lawyers, paperwork, and interest on land. We've been ready to go for months." A developer in the UT area since the Seventies, McHone says he never expected what he calls "the NUNA backlash." Apartment buildings just across the street from the Villas site, he points out, have nearly the same density. McHone notes that the University Area Partners, within whose boundaries the Villas project actually lies, okayed his 163-unit version after negotiating a slight reduction in units and a 30-foot height decrease. While NUNA is mostly composed of homeowners, UAP represents Drag-area businesses, churches, and the university, but few homeowners. McHone also happens to be UAP's vice president, but says he recuses himself from committees charged with reviewing his own projects.

NUNA President Jerry Roemisch doesn't buy that argument. "He's still very influential," Roemisch said. "I think the critical thing is [McHone Real Estate and UAP] share the same financial goals." Roemisch believes a neighborhood plan would help NUNA develop the neighborhood consistently, but due to a scheduling backup the area can't enter the city's planning process for another two years. "It's very costly and [time-consuming] to do the planning piecemeal," he said, "We'd like to work with developers." To beat the clock -- and the bulldozers -- NUNA might seek a historical zoning designation like that in nearby Hyde Park.

Meanwhile, even before the Villas move in, two old neighbors will be leaving: A house built by Austin architect Roy Thomas is already being dismantled and will move to 15th and San Antonio, and a 1949 office complex at the site's northern[ end faces demolition. Pringle, who has lived near UT for 12 years, doubts the office building can be saved. "We wouldn't be here if we didn't accept living near students," she said, "but we do want to protect what we have here."

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North University Neighborhood Association, NUNA, Villas on Guadalupe, Villas Partners Limited, Brad Zucker, Mike McHone, Jackie Goodman, Zoning and Platting Commission, Suzanne Pringle, Rachael Rawlins, Matt Hammond, University Area Partners, Jerry Roemisch, Roy Thoma

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