Beside the Point
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.