Beside the Point

Zoned Out

For you zoning wonks who salivate in salacious anticipation of my esteemed colleague Katherine Gregor's latest low-down treatise on building up, the zoning and development action didn't come any hotter and heavier than last week's City Council meeting. For those of us prone to turning on (Channel 6, that is), tuning out, and dozing off for this indeterminable back-end to the agenda, it was a lot to comprehend (not to mention stay upright for).

The clutch of last week's meeting was truly a zoning triptych: a vertical mixed-use opt-in/opt-out extravaganza, passage of affordable-housing guidelines for Downtown, and an emotional, saline-soaked discussion of the historic-or-not Henry Colley House in West Aus­tin. The latter, uncomfortably striving to balance the needs of preserving Austin's African-Ameri­can pioneers (if not the neighbors' NIMBYist dread) against the current owners' concerns, took up most of the evening.

The history is intriguing: Colley, a former slave, purchased the land from former Gov. Elisha Marshall Pease's family in the 1800s. But the house's history is cold comfort to current owners, whose family bought the property in the 1940s. Their plans to move the abode to less expensive environs were met with complaints from neighboring West Austinites, who have sought historic zoning – over the objections of owners Betty Mott and Katie Ruthven – to keep the house as is. Council ultimately came down in a split 4-3 vote on the first reading; as a 6-1 majority will be required on second and third (to trump the owners' petition against the change), it looks like council gave the neighborhood preservationists a Pyrrhic victory in round one, before coming down on the side of the homeowners.

Speaking of Pyrrhic victories, Jennifer Kim, facing a hotly contested re-election, scored a clip for the campaign highlight reel with passage of interim affordable-housing regulations for Downtown. While the recommendations will surely be tweaked with respect to the forthcoming Downtown master plan from ROMA, they currently would require buildings wanting to build beyond their square-footage limits to dedicate 10% of all additional space to affordable housing or pay a $10 fee on every additional square foot that's built. (Mind you, we're talking about Downtown affordability, which, for owners, clocks in at 120% of the median family income – not exactly a Dust Bowl standard.) Exactly how much this will have to be reworked, especially considering ROMA's insistence on making midrise constructions the centerpiece of affordability – not the current skyscraper craze driving Downtown – remains to be seen.

Whew. Seriously, Katherine, how do you do it, week after week?

OK, only one more – the VMU neighborhood discussion. It was hard to imagine, when council approved it a year back, that something as ostensibly milquetoast as these new zoning regulations would engender such emotion. But maligned on the Eastside as an engine of gentrification, and of neighborhood-incompatible development west of that, fairly or unfairly, VMU has come to symbolize many Austinites' fears about the changing face of their city. Bearing this in mind, the pleas from the neighborhoods looking to opt out weren't terribly surprising – but council's reaction was: Council members rejected requests to opt out all four tracts in the Judges' Hill neighborhood (between Lamar and West Avenue, 15th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard); citing the importance of density along major arterials like MLK, Will Wynn called VMU "brilliant" and "an important tool" for answering the questions of where the hell all these newly minted Austinites are gonna land (about 85 newbies coming in each day, by Hizzoner's estimate). Hyde Park and the East MLK neighborhoods' more sweeping opt-out requests were also rescheduled to the end-of-month meeting, Feb. 28; to judge from the council push-back – literal and otherwise – don't be surprised if the hoods return with less strident opt-out demands.

Wonkish or not, zoning is where the new Austin is built, brick by brick.


Council's off today, Feb. 7, to procure dates for its Valentine's Day meeting. Direct your own come-ons to wdunbar@austinchronicle.com.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More City Council
Could a Hotel Tax Help Save Austin’s Creative Sector?
Could a Hotel Tax Help Save Austin’s Creative Sector?
A familiar debate returns under extreme circumstances

Austin Sanders, Oct. 9, 2020

Council Preview: City Finds $15 Million to Help Struggling Businesses
Council Preview: City Finds $15 Million to Help Struggling Businesses
Three programs designed to assist economic sectors forced to close early in the pandemic

Austin Sanders, Oct. 2, 2020

More Beside the Point
Beside the Point: Referendum, Texas
Beside the Point: Referendum, Texas
Let’s vote on ... something, anything, and all of the time

Chase Hoffberger, July 20, 2018

Beside the Point: Represent, Represent
Beside the Point: Represent, Represent
County Commissioners consider the right form of indigent defense

Chase Hoffberger, April 27, 2018

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City Council, zoning, neighborhoods, Downtown, vertical mixed-use

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle