The Austin Chronicle

Here Come the Neighborhoods

By Lauri Apple, March 1, 2002, News

Under a brilliant blue sky, members of the North University Neighborhood Assn. gathered on the steps of City Hall Feb. 25 for a noon press conference and rally against a perceived lack of neighborhood planning -- placing extra emphasis on "neighborhood." The impetus for NUNA's rally -- which included representatives from neighborhood associations across town, and a science-fair-like exhibit on the charming North University area -- is the Villas on Guadalupe, a super-dense student housing complex and parking garage proposed between the Drag and Hemphill Park.

"Change is inevitable and even desirable," said NUNA President Jerry Roemisch. "Neighborhoods are willing to work in a constructive role ... but we need to be involved from the beginning." He and other NUNA members believe the planning process currently favors "full-time developers" over "part-time volunteers," prohibits neighborhoods from participating until city staff decides it's their turn, and forces neighborhoods such as NUNA without plans to react to developers' projects defensively instead of proactively. The City Council, they say, often overrules or ignores concerns raised by residents and city zoning commissions.

For reference, NUNA cites its experience with the Villas, which technically would be located in territory overseen by the University Area Partners, a mini-Chamber of Drag businesses, but would overlook their neighborhood. The group has consistently objected to the developers' request for MF-6 (multifamily) zoning, a rarely applied standard, in favor of less density. Yet council approved MF-6 subject to conditions, as recommended by city staff, on first reading Jan. 10.

"High-end housing rented at maximum dollars per square foot drives up neighborhood property values and taxes," Roemisch said. "In response, landlords must raise rents or tear down affordable housing and replace it with comparable high-end apartments." A valid NUNA petition signed by neighborhood property owners who oppose the Villas' new zoning would require six council votes to override. "That's not likely," Roemisch said.

Council Member Beverly Griffith, who with Council Member Raul Alvarez dissented Jan. 10, appeared at the rally to express support for NUNA and to advocate a "stronger and better" neighborhood planning process. Other Council Members say they agree improvement is needed, but question the exact position NUNA took at their rally.

Council Member Will Wynn, who proposed the motion on Jan. 10 to approve conditional MF-6, believes discussion of the Villas, as well as broader issues about improving the location of UT student housing, should occur within the context of a large campus/neighborhood area plan. "If I thought that such a plan could be created and approved in a reasonable period of time," he said, "I would suggest that this zoning case wait." He voted for the Villas on first reading "in favor of housing that will reduce commuter traffic," and adds that doing so allows for further refinement and improvement of the project.

Meanwhile, Council Member Daryl Slusher, who seconded Wynn's motion, says he isn't sure that a neighborhood plan would even resolve complaints raised by NUNA members, many of whom live over 1,000 feet away from the Villas site. "The fight is over the apartments," he said. "If you were doing a neighborhood plan, you would have that fight as part of neighborhood planning." Since the first reading vote, Slusher says, he's walked and driven around North University, paying close attention to traffic and layout, and believes there's "plenty of precedent" for putting high-density housing so close to UT. "Putting them on 32nd Street would be a bad precedent, but that's not where this is."

Council was scheduled to vote on the Villas on second and third reading at today's meeting, but at press time city staff told us the item likely would be postponed.

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