Plaza Saltillo, Austin Oaks bring affordable housing fight to council
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.