Planning Commission nearly derails East Austin townhouse project

Picture by Google Maps

Friday May 27th, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

A townhouse project asking to be built closer to single-family homes than generally allowed nearly fell until Tuesday, when the Planning Commission did not have enough votes to approve the requested waiver.

The developer of the seven-unit project at 1400 Cedar Ave. originally requested to build within five feet of its north and west property line — closer than the 25-foot setback required for non-single-family uses next to single-family homes.

In April, following testimony from three neighbors opposed to the waiver, the commissioners suggested that the plaintiff rework the proposal to create a minimum setback of 12.5 feet.

Agent Alejandra Flores said after testing the site plans with varying setbacks, “seven feet is the most we can do.” While the development team had tried to appease neighbors and commissioners with a five-unit project with bigger setbacks, they said the project needed seven units to be financially viable. Current plans show a setback of 7 feet to the north and a setback of 18 feet to the west.

Neighbor Ian Zurzolo requested a month-long postponement after believing the developer had decided on a site plan with bigger setbacks. “It was a complete shock and surprise, and frankly, we felt like we were cheated by the candidate,” Zurzolo said. Travis Lucy, the architect of the project, said: “There was no intention to mislead anyone with the alternate layouts.”

The commission denied Zurzolo’s request for postponement and heard the case. In a presentation to the commission, Lucy noted that the project is more compatible with the neighborhood than other uses currently permitted on the site, which is zoned Commercial Services-Vertical Mixed-Use (CS-MU-V-CO-NP) .

“Compared to some of the acceptable CS zoning uses that might be here, it’s family housing – it’s a much quieter, low-intensity type of use,” Lucy said, adding that the project will reduce impermeable cover and generate far less traffic than commercial use – a major concern of opposing neighbors. The land is currently vacant but more recently housed metallurgical workshops.

Commissioners discussed the affordability of townhouses, in response to a neighbor who said townhouses would not be affordable enough. Commissioner Awais Azhar guessed that based on the single-family home next door — valued at nearly $1 million — the townhouses would likely be relatively affordable for the neighborhood, given their size, and would share a lot with other units. Lucy said floor plans range from 1,600 to 2,100 square feet.

Commissioner Grayson Cox could not think of a justification for granting the exception. “I’m trying to understand why we would approve a waiver here and not just a general waiver for all situations like this,” he said.

The committee, short of five members, voted 6-0-2 to approve the waiver with Cox and Commissioner Carmen Llanes Pulido abstaining – one vote shy of a majority.

In order to save the project – on which the Planning Commission has the final say – Commissioner Greg Anderson has offered to postpone the case until June 14.

“We lost a lot of members. It’s late. Let’s look at it again instead of killing housing,” Anderson said. His motion is adopted unanimously.

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