Beside the Point

No Room at the Hutch

Let it be hoarily said: In its godlike omnipotence, the city doesn't close a door without opening a window – or tear down a day care without erecting a condominium.

In this case, said day care is Habibi's Hutch, located on Manchaca Road along South Lamar, in the near-mythical 78704. Andrew Urbanus, who sounds like he should be building spire condos somewhere Downtown, is instead the proprietor of the (insert adjective: weird, funky, homegrown) day care, overseeing some 40 grubby-pawed toddlers. Problem is, as a renter, Urbanus is collateral damage in the development boom still reverberating through Austin. Last week the Planning Commission approved dense vertical mixed-use zoning for the tract of land the Hutch calls home, clearing the way for hundreds of condos and apartments, along with mixed-use retail and office space. Today, the recommendation is on the agenda for City Council approval.

Granted, the Planning Commission implored the developers to help the day care find a new home (post-Escuelita del Alma, seemingly destined to become a standard clause in Austin development contracts). And Brewster McCracken, no doubt beaming that the project is expected to adhere to commercial design standards, enthuses that in this case, the Hutch is clearing way for affordable housing; he told the Real Estatesman last week that "you have the opportunity to have a denser, high quality [development] with affordable housing versus a strip center or a car lot."

Aesthetics über alles!

Which brings us to the crowning irony of today's meeting: prior to the afternoon's zoning session, council considers the recommendations of the Affordable Housing Incentive Task Force, which delivered a draft of recommendations back in February. Seriously … what's the rush?

With something like this taking months to make it to council, you honestly have to wonder – what exactly do they consider a priority? No matter; the requirements aren't exactly earthmoving – unless we're talking bulldozers. To date, the centerpiece of affordability, VMU style, reserves 10% of the units in a development for those making 80% of median family income. "Median" Austin income being just shy of $50,000. That means rent at 80% MFI clocks in at just less than $1,000 a month – making so-called "affordability" a cruel joke. A more absurdist example is just farther up South Lamar, at the Stoneridge Apartments, where actual affordable units will be leveled, with faux "affordable" units conscripted to replace a fraction of the original units at almost twice the cost. But hey … we're sure they'll have some wide sidewalks!

In the Capitol-view corridor of my mind, I'd like to think there was something approximating a rough consensus that VMU and design standards were lofty, laudable goals – but only in tandem with real affordable, sustainable growth – for the "teachers, firefighters, young professionals, and middle-income families" idealized before the zoning or planning commission, yet always conspicuously absent from the finished project. Maybe there's hope – as endorsed by the Austin Neighborhoods Council, People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources, and several neighborhood associations, an Eastside VMU moratorium may be in order until we figure out how to capture VMU's benefit – not just its expensive, gentrifying side effects. But as the construction along South Lamar shows us – and the meandering detour the affordability discussion has taken – council prefers form over function.

Present briefs!

Other than the affordability chuckles, there ain't much else on the agenda this week. Pulling up for third reading today is city selection of a new cab franchise; will previous winner Lone Star Cab pull off the three-peat, or will a split council throw it into reverse? But council will spin its wheels on precious little else; notably, they're shelling out another $50,000 to outside legal counsel in their eons-long eminent-domain battle against Texas politico and buckshot magnet Harry Whittington.

They'd best pay up, and cautiously – we're sure Cheney owes Harry a favor or two.

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Austin City Council, Habibi's Hutch, Vertical Mixed Use, Brewster McCracken, Harry Whittington, Lone Star Cab

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