Density Debacle at 51st Street

Neighborhood, developer, and bike activists all at odds over proposed development

View from the current entrance to the Game Warden Academy
View from the current entrance to the Game Warden Academy (Photo by Daniel Mottola)

What started as a low-profile zoning case for a residential development in Central Austin is now a three-way controversy, involving not only the adjacent neighborhood and the developer but also bicycle activists, who've been chiding the powerful Hyde Park Neighborhood Association for demanding that the developer restrict bicycle and pedestrian access on an existing street connecting the project and the neighborhood. The proposed development, which won initial approval from City Council last month, is scheduled for a final vote today (Thursday, May 15), but a new wrinkle in the agreement between HPNA and the developer, San Antonio-based Commercial Investment Services, may force a postponement to allow continuing negotiations.

Prohibiting both vehicular and bike/ped access on a stretch of East 50th Street is part of an original agreement hammered out between the neighborhood and CIS over several months. While the Planning Commission opposed the project's intent to restrict access to cyclists and pedestrians, city staff took no position on that aspect of the agreement. But council's public airing of the prohibition at its April 24 meeting touched off a spate of angry blog postings and e-mails among bike/ped advocates. Many critics believed the council's action was contrary to the city's goals for diverse transportation modes, while some suggested the agreement smacked of neighborhood elitism. But the provision was presented as a compromise between neighbors and the project's developer to address concerns about parking overflow onto Rowena Street, which lacks sidewalks and is already crowded with parked cars. The development site – currently owned by Texas Parks & Wildlife and occupied by the agency's Game Warden Training Academy – has never been zoned by the city, but now requires zoning allowing for multifamily use.

Now there's a new twist. Last week, the HPNA rescinded its support for the proposed development over concerns about parking, traffic impact, and increased flooding of nearby Waller Creek. With the agreement off the table, the developer is now considering scrapping previous concessions to neighbors and instead moving to finalize zoning at today's council meeting.

While the access dispute may seem to reflect an atypical set of circumstances, it illustrates what are sure to be increasingly typical points of contention over more density in urban neighborhoods. The fact that council bowed so quickly to a neighborhood's demands, ignoring recommendations by the Planning Commission to allow for bike/ped access, raises concerns over whether density-shy Central City neighborhood associations can discourage efforts to curb sprawl. The concern is that Hyde Park's apparent NIMBY reaction would cause the project to resemble an oversized suburban cul-de-sac, with busy 51st Street as its only access.

Density Debacle at 51st Street

The site is split into two distinct tracts, with apartment buildings planned for the tract closest to the University of Texas intramural fields along 51st, and townhomes slated for the property nearest Rowena Street. The proposal calls for a total of 140 units, according to Nikelle Meade, an attorney representing the project's developer.

In a letter to City Council rescinding HPNA's formal support for the project, HPNA President Elaine Meenehan asked that final zoning decisions be postponed "to allow time for a traffic study, a flood study, and a determination of the specific site plan committing to the number of units and guest parking." Said Karen McGraw, HPNA's planning chair, "The neighborhood agreed to the plan in January, but some neighbors never liked it and we never got answers to some questions."

Meenehan called the controversial bike/ped access closure "the best of several bad options," explaining that nearby neighbors "spoke very clearly" that overflow parking from the development onto Rowena was a key concern to them. CIS is "promising enough parking per city code," which is "just enough for residents but not guests," she said. "Nobody wants to prohibit bikes and pedestrians – just people parking on Rowena and walking into the development." She added, "I find it a little odd that they haven't committed to a final site plan yet." McGraw said the developer showed guest parking on its plans but wouldn't codify those spaces.

"What they're saying is an absolute farce," responded Meade, who says she's represented other Austin neighborhoods in similar negotiations. "We said from the beginning that we were not doing a site plan during the zoning phase." And neighbors' parking fears are "not a valid concern," she said. "We will comply, without variance, with the city of Austin's parking requirements for residents and guests," Meade said, adding that CIS offered to pay for residential parking permits for two years. As for the project's intended occupants, "There's nothing we will do to target-market to students." Rather, "We'll be targeting young professionals." Units will be priced from $300,000 to $600,000, Meade said. CIS hopes to sell all the units, though they haven't fully ruled out renting, depending on market conditions.

Andy Jones, a 19-year Rowena Street resident whose home backs up to the proposed development, said, "When we were initially brought to the table, we kind of felt like deer in the headlights. By the time things were looking like they were ironed out with the developer and they had the neighborhood's support, we figured out we had options and that we didn't want that dense of a development next door to us. It really diminishes the integrity of the neighborhood." Ultimately, Jones said, "it boils back to the city's intent to do all this high-density infill, pushing density to areas where it probably shouldn't be."

"When building your opposition to a densification project," wrote Hyde Park resident Rich MacKinnon in an April 28 letter to neighbors, "think about whose backyard other than yours is more appropriate. We all choose to live in Hyde Park because of the neighborhood mix of amenities, but if we are not careful, our NIMBYism will not allow Hyde Park to continue to flourish. We all live next to some 'thing' and that something is what makes the neighborhood worthwhile, attractive, and a great investment. For those of us that seek to live next to nothing, there's plenty of nothing to be had in other environs."

Meanwhile, Meenehan expressed hope of a renegotiated agreement with the developer. But given the tone of Meade's expressed frustration, HPNA will be lucky to find itself back at the table with CIS at all. "I'm extremely disappointed we wasted so many months talking with the neighborhood," Meade said. "On two separate occasions the neighborhood told council, staff, and the Planning Commission we had an agreement. And they reneged."

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Hyde Park, Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, Commercial Investment Services, CIS, City Council, Nikelle Meade

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