Plaza Saltillo, Austin Oaks bring af­ford­able hous­ing fight to coun­cil

Austin American-Statesman - - MONEY & MARKETS - By Nolan Hicks nhicks@states­ Con­tact Nolan Hicks at 512445-3617. Twit­ter: @nd­hap­ple

Two projects that have drawn strong neigh­bor­hood op­po­si­tion face piv­otal votes at Thurs­day’s City Coun­cil meet­ing, which could bring some fi­nal­ity to the years-long fights over the size and scope of these mixed-use de­vel­op­ments.

One, the re­de­vel­op­ment of the Austin Oaks of­fice park in North­west Austin, faces a pro­posed re­shap­ing that could dou­ble the amount of af­ford­able hous­ing at the site. The other, Plaza Saltillo in East Austin, will face a cru­cial vote over the fu­ture of its pro­posed 125-foot of­fice tower, which pro­po­nents say would pro­vide tax rev­enue to sup­port ad­di­tional af­ford­able hous­ing.

How­ever, some neigh­bors have com­plained that both projects could flood their streets with traf­fic, dis­rupt the char­ac­ter of their neigh­bor­hoods and — in a sign of just how con­tentious Austin’s de­vel­op­ment pol­i­tics have be­come — pro­vide ei­ther too much or too lit­tle af­ford­able hous­ing.

For Plaza Saltillo, project crit­ics charge the pro­posal by En­deavor Real Es­tate Group and Colum­bus Realty Part­ners not only pro­vides less af­ford­able hous­ing than the de­vel­op­ers ini­tially promised, but less than city reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing the 11-acre site re­quire.

“We want to get the project closer to what the com­mu­nity wants to see,” said Coun­cil Mem­ber Les­lie Pool. “At this point, the project isn’t what it could be and it doesn’t re­flect the com­mu­nity’s goals.”

She added: “The project that they are now talk­ing about build­ing sounds an aw­ful lot like one of the projects that lost the bid in the first place.”

When En­deavor rep­re­sen­ta­tives made their case in 2014 to the board of Cap­i­tal Metro, which owns the old railyard, they said 25 per­cent — or 200 — of the 800 units planned for Plaza Saltillo would be af­ford­able hous­ing.

How­ever, the fine print of the deal man­dated the de­vel­oper pro­vide 15 per­cent of the hous­ing and pro­vide the city with the op­tion to fund the re­main­ing 10 per­cent — a twist that sur­prised some coun­cil mem­bers.

Now, En­deavor and some coun­cil mem­bers are spar­ing over how to cal­cu­late that 15 per­cent.

If it is based on the to­tal square footage of the project, then — as­sum­ing the tower is built — that would re­sult in an es­ti­mated 184 af­ford­able units, ac­cord­ing to Pool’s of­fice. Or if it was based on 15 per­cent of the res­i­den­tial com­po­nent of the project, that would cre­ate an es­ti­mated 141 af­ford­able units.

On its face, the de­vel­op­ment rules gov­ern­ing the project re­quire to­tal square footage. How­ever, the guide­lines also give the coun­cil the power to al­low En­deavor to pay into the city’s af­ford­able hous­ing fund in­stead if it “demon­strates a com­pelling rea­son to not pro­vide the hous­ing.”

“We are ex­cited to be mov­ing for­ward with the vi­sion for Plaza Saltillo, a Tran­sit Ori­ented De­vel­op­ment that trans­forms an unused brown­field site into a com­mu­nity that addresses two of Austin’s most press­ing is­sues in a mean­ing­ful way, af­ford­able hous­ing and trans­porta­tion,” ac­cord­ing to a state­ment by Ja­son Thum­lert, a top of­fi­cial with En­deavor, a com­pany that is sep­a­rately in­volved with the Amer­i­can-States­man’s own­ers to re­de­velop the site where the news­pa­per op­er­ates.

How­ever, on the other side of town, Pool finds her­self on the op­po­site end of an af­ford­able hous­ing fight.

There, Coun­cil Mem­ber Greg Casar is push­ing Dal­las-based Spire Realty to po­ten­tially dou­ble the amount of af­ford­able hous­ing at Austin Oaks.

His sup­port is cru­cial af­ter more than 20 per­cent of the sur­round­ing prop­erty own­ers signed a pe­ti­tion protest­ing any zon­ing change, which re­quires Spire to find a ninevote su­per­ma­jor­ity on the City Coun­cil for ap­proval, in­stead of the usual six.

Casar’s pro­posal, ex­pected to be de­bated Thurs­day, of­fers a menu of op­tions for the site, all but one of which in­creases af­ford­able hous­ing by at least 90 per­cent by ditch­ing plans for a ho­tel and adding a new res­i­den­tial build­ing.

His of­fice was not im­me­di­ately avail­able for com­ment.

“Neigh­bor­hood rep­re­sen­ta­tives asked the mayor to ex­plore adding more res­i­den­tial to the site,” said Michael Whel­lan, the at­tor­ney rep­re­sent­ing Spire. “As a re­sult, we stud­ied that pos­si­bil­ity at the re­quest of the neigh­bors. The owner con­tin­ues to sup­port the de­sign char­rette pre­ferred plan and mod­i­fi­ca­tions to that plan are pol­icy de­ci­sions for coun­cil dis­cus­sion.”

Casar’s pro­posal would be­come the sec­ond ma­jor redo of Spire’s pro­posal to re­place the ag­ing of­fice park, lo­cated at MoPac Boule­vard and Spice­wood Springs Road.

The de­vel­oper’s ini­tial plan called for build­ing two 17-story tow­ers at the site, which ran into a wall of neigh­bor­hood op­po­si­tion. In late 2015, Spire re­versed course and agreed to in­volve neigh­bors in a plan redo through a process known as a de­sign char­rette.

The de­vel­oper’s char­rette plan, sup­ported by one key neigh­bor­hood group, cut the size of the de­vel­op­ment by 25 per­cent, and added park space, hous­ing and restau­rants.

How­ever, some neigh­bors re­mained op­posed, cit­ing the project’s traf­fic and planned re­moval of some trees.

At Tues­day’s coun­cil work ses­sion, Pool joined Coun­cil Mem­ber Ali­son Al­ter, whose Dis­trict 10 in­cludes Austin Oaks and who cam­paigned against the cur­rent planned re­de­vel­op­ment, in ex­press­ing skep­ti­cism about the new af­ford­able hous­ing push at the site. Both pointed to the stu­dent hous­ing and large, older af­ford­able hous­ing com­plexes north and south of the site, with Pool de­scrib­ing the area as “sat­u­rated” with af­ford­able hous­ing.

“An un­in­tended con­se­quence of push­ing for more units here in this case, is we may end up af­fect­ing the mar­ket here on the ground,” she said Tues­day.

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