Naked City

Villas Goes to Bat

The fate of the Villas on Guadalupe will likely be decided today (Thursday) by the City Council, which plans to consider on third and final reading the developers' request for modified multifamily(MF)-6 zoning for an upscale student housing project. Yesterday, the North University Neighborhood Association failed to restore their valid petition against the ultra-dense MF-6-CO designation (with height and site area restrictions) for Tract One of the 150-unit complex and 395-space parking garage, sited between the Drag and Hemphill Park St.

Since council last considered the Villas on second reading March 7, three parties withdrew their signatures from the NUNA petition; one sold his property to project developers Villas on Guadalupe Ltd. NUNA went out and got more signatures opposing the zoning change, but only achieved 19.75% of property owners in the area -- a hair short of the 20% requirement. Petitions require six council votes to overrule.

According to NUNA counsel Rachael Rawlins, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman has suggested the possibility of rezoning a triangular piece of land on the corner of Guadalupe and Hemphill Park to MF-6, and rezoning the rest of the property to a less-dense MF-3. (As currently planned, the Villas would front Hemphill Park, not the Drag.) "The neighbors would support that," Rawlins said, adding that she wasn't sure if Goodman planned to present the idea at today's meeting. "It was just an idea Jackie had thrown out." If the developers comply, Rawlins said, the case would not have to return to the Planning Commission because the commission has already considered the zoning with the entire 2.4-acre site included. In its current configuration, the zoning excludes a part of the southern triangle "because the developers hoped to evade NUNA's original, valid petition."

But Villas project consultant Mike McHone believes Goodman's suggestion is unworkable. The Villas partners excluded some parts of the site from their rezoning request -- including existing surface parking and a 10-foot set back on 29th and Hemphill -- because the land didn't need to be rezoned. "You're not going to build any units in a setback anyway," he said, "so why rezone it?"

However the council votes on the Villas, much larger planning issues remain for NUNA. No. 1: The city hasn't incorporated their neighborhood into its planning process. Partly to lobby for inclusion, the organization invited Goodman and Ricardo Soliz of the city's Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department to its April 1 meeting to discuss planning. Soliz told the group that they might be able to enter the process as soon as September.

In the interim, NUNA worries, other MF-6 projects will be planned for the area by big-bucks developers, and they aren't alone. Eastwoods, Shoalcrest, and Heritage neighborhood associations have decided to join NUNA in asking the city to assist with a joint neighborhood plan. Representatives of those and several other Central Austin associations will attend today's meeting to implore council to hold off on applying MF-6 zoning in residential areas until it has been identified as appropriate via an adopted neighborhood plan. "We hope council notices that the neighborhoods' banding together is a direct result of the MF-6," said NUNA President Jerry Roemisch. "It's an indication of how neighborhoods are upset about this." The issue has even gotten the attention of state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, who wrote Mayor Gus Garcia and the council a letter April 1 in which he said, "I urge you to consider this particular project with utmost care, as it will have a lasting impact on established Central Austin neighborhoods."

Meanwhile, the developers stand by their Villas. "We're trying to do the neighborhood a favor," McHone said, adding that the site's current commercial services (CS) zoning would permit "a doughnut shop, a drive through, or 10,000 cars a day. We're providing a pedestrian way and student housing ... We're building for the future." That future, he said, includes fewer cars and more mass transit riders, pedestrians, and cyclists. NUNA's concerns that MF-6 will soon pop up everywhere is "unfounded," he adds. Acknowledging neighbors' worries that MF-6 could migrate to the eastern side of Hemphill and replace its small apartment buildings and houses with huge, dense complexes, McHone said getting the owners to sell all of their properties would take time, and that the block presents impervious cover issues that would affect cost and feasibility. Only time will tell.

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