The Austin Chronicle

A Plea for 'Balanced Density'

By Amy Smith, February 10, 2012, News

Nearly two years after a partial victory on an appeal of a questionable remodel of a home near the University of Texas campus, the Original West University Neighborhood Association is again taking on a planned development, this one directly next door to the David Street project the NA challenged in 2010.

In this case, owner Michael Said is not planning to remodel the 1940s home at 1917 David St., just off of 22nd. Rather, his green-lighted plans call for demolishing the well-worn home and replacing it with a rental duplex, with three bedrooms plus a game room and study in each unit. Accord­ing to Said's agent, Michael McHone, Said ultimately plans to sell the homes as condominiums, but for now he must work with what the current market demands: rental housing. Neighboring homeowners, on the other hand, are already conjuring worst-case scenarios for this narrow street lined on both sides with parked vehicles: They envision a crowded rooming house for students.

OWUNA is appealing the city-approved permit to the Board of Adjustment and expects the case to be heard sometime in March. The project creates yet another town-gown conundrum in an area teeming with new student-oriented apartments and condos, as well as young families dedicated to preserving their neighborhood of single-family homes. At the same time, OWUNA points to its support of creating more density in Central Austin.

"I am a big advocate of density," said OWUNA secretary Karrie League. "I wanted to say that first thing, because a lot of times this issue gets confused as a density vs. non-density issue." League, who with husband Tim owns the thriving line of Alamo Drafthouse cinemas, added, "I also believe that in order to create a pleasant, livable, densely populated central city, the density has to be well-planned and -executed."

The neighborhood group believes that the developer is trying to skirt city code (which allows no more than three tenants per unit) by classifying additional rooms as game rooms and studies. But McHone insists his client is following the development rules and will build the project according to code, and provide sufficient parking spaces for tenants in the alley behind the structure. "If he's building something that can eventually be sold as a condominium, he needs to have the space that people expect in a condominium," McHone said. "He knows the rules."

Instead of undertaking an extensive remodel of the home he purchased in 2006 (which the city's Code Compliance Depart­ment had deemed an illegal four-plex), Said decided to tear it down and start from scratch. "Given the economic situtation and given that this is so close to the university, he probably will be renting it for some time because there is not any financing for condos," McHone added. "Right now, he just wants to get rid of an old, rundown building and build something nice for the neighborhood." OWUNA President Nuria Zaragosa isn't buying it, predicting the duplex is headed down the path of violating the city's 2003 superduplex ordinance designed to curtail maxed-out sizes and occupancies of such dwellings. The city's approval of the building permit "is like a vote of no confidence that the city can enforce its code," she said. "You wouldn't spend that much money [on a development] if you knew you could only occupy it with six people. I'm assuming there are 10 bedrooms, so possibly a total of 14 people on a single-family lot turns into a lot of cars, a lot of trash, and a lot of noise."

Lest anyone suggest that OWUNA is simply anti-density, Zaragosa notes that the NA is "unusual" when compared to other central-city neighborhoods. "We've had zoning cases that maybe other neighborhoods would have opposed, and we haven't." Of the some 60 planning areas in Austin, she added, "We are in the densest planning area, and I think our only concern is that density be balanced and supported."

McHone, a veteran developer agent who knows his way around City Hall, says he has represented various campus-area property owners over the years. "I've got a long history with the area, long before most of the current folks were ever there," he said. "Right now we're in a period, and we have been for several years, where we have people moving in with families, and that is creating conflicts with the students that have been there a long time."

As for League, she says there wouldn't be a conflict if developers would simply follow the rules. "I just feel that the city created a plan to massively increase density in certain parts of the city. This plan has a lot of rules and regulations that make for good design, proper traffic flow, nice sidewalks, and pedestrian amenities," she said. "By building these stealth dorms outside of the plan, they avoid all these details that are supposed to be in place to support well-planned density. They are simply creating student ghettos. And this erodes support for density by destroying neighborhoods."

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