Then There's This: Montopolis Is Cool With Uncool

East Austin neighborhood aims to fend off gentrification

The historic trestle crossing the Colorado River is just one cool thing about Montopolis.
The historic trestle crossing the Colorado River is just one cool thing about Montopolis. (Photo courtesy of Larry D. Moore/WikiMedia)

For an area of town that used to be known as Poverty Island, the Montopolis neighborhood in Southeast Austin – "Area 5" in real estate parlance – is looking more and more attractive to developers and real estate agents eager to place clients in centrally located homes that are both new-ish and reasonably affordable.

But longtime Montopolis residents are trying to keep the working-class, predominantly Hispanic neighborhood from going down the same hipster path as Central East Austin. For now, at least, they can point to one victory – the denial of a proposed zoning change that would have allowed the development of 45 individual condos at 600 Kemp, a small stretch of land that runs north and south between Montopolis Drive and Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Park. The project would have sat near small, modest homes – what residents call "shotgun houses" – that have sheltered generations of families.

The zoning request, from SF-3 (single-family) to SF-6 (townhouse/condo), met its first roadblock at the Planning Com­mis­sion, with a definitive 5-0 vote (with one abstention) to deny the zoning, even though everyone acknowledged that a mix of housing types is exactly what the city is trying to achieve with the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan.

A similar conversation took place last week at City Council before a 4-3 vote sent agent Ron Thrower and client/developer Joe Stafford back to square one to decide what to do with the 5.4-acre tract that Staf­ford purchased last year. It happens that stand-alone condos are the best option to build on the site, Thrower told the Planning Commission last month. "The market is leaning heavy to this type of product right now," he said.

Market forces or no, what's most puzzling is the need to build condos priced between $200,000 and $250,000 in a neighborhood where many homes are appraised at a mere fraction of that. The resulting adverse impact such a development would have on residents didn't sit well with either the Commission or the Council majority – in this case Laura Morrison, Mike Martinez, Kathie Tovo, and Bill Spel­man (who tipped his hand when he questioned Thrower about the anticipated price range of the condos, then remained silent for the rest of the hearing).

Eastside leader Susana Almanza was the first to speak against the development. "This particular project is going to open the floodgates of gentrification in Montopolis," she said. "We've all seen that gentrification has happened throughout East Austin ... from East Cesar Chavez, Govalle ... to the last conquest, which is the Montopolis neighborhood."

Judging from data compiled by city demographer Ryan Robinson, most Montopolis residents are just barely making it in a community that is 80% Latino, with a median family income of less than $30,000 a year. From Thrower's perspective, though, the city is creating a dicey situation for developers. On the one hand, Council is calling for more diverse housing, and on the other, responding to residents who want to retain the existing character of their neighborhoods – another tenet of Imagine Austin. "I don't think that anybody wants to do a development that is going to lower property values in the area. We're always faced with one of two things – you're ruining my property value or raising my taxes," Thrower said.

Not everyone in the neighborhood opposes the development; Thrower convinced a few former opponents to switch sides. One of those converts was Florence Ponziano, who runs the beloved Florence's Comfort House, a safe haven for neighborhood kids. She was initially concerned about the development's impact on traffic. Others said they'd prefer individually-owned condos over a duplex project. But opponents then accused Thrower of using the duplex-rental threat as a means of swaying neighbors, when duplexes were never intended for the site.

Angelica Noyola told Council that Monto­polis residents are "walking on eggshells tonight, fearing the city may allow our community to become the next cool place to be," she said. "This is a community of families. We would like to continue to promote that versus an overrun of young, single hipsters more concerned about how fast they can get to Downtown from Montopolis."

Much as Mayor Lee Leffingwell tried to steer the discussion back to "zoning the dirt," the majority of Council wasn't willing to remove the human element. Martinez put it this way: "What I'm hearing tonight is neighbors who are saying ... we're not averse to something happening on this property. What they're opposed to is the single proposal that you have made in a condo regime style that they believe – and I agree with them – could have a negative effect on that neighborhood."

Echoing those sentiments and noting that Montopolis is indeed on the verge of "tipping over," Morrison noted that there is only so much the Council can do to minimize the impact of gentrification in low-income neighborhoods. "I feel like we have the ability ... to do something here today by denying this zoning case, and so with that I'll make a motion."

And with that, the Council said no.

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