After extended discussion that kicked off with a question of whether or not there is a “compelling reason” to do so, the Austin Planning Commission on Tuesday night approved extra building height, as well as a zoning change, for the developing Plaza Saltillo project just east of IH-35 between East Fourth and East Fifth streets.
The commission’s 9-4 vote in favor will send its recommendation for the changes, proposed by developer group Endeavor Real Estate Group and Columbus Realty Partners in conjunction with the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development programs administrators, to the Austin City Council for consideration.
The additional height approved—up to 125 feet, almost three times what is currently allowable at the site—is necessary primarily to accommodate an office building that is part of the plan, although its approval would also allow an increase from 60 feet to up to 70 feet on other parts of the tract.
Some commissioners expressed concern that the increase—which allows a significant jump from what is currently present along the east side of I-35 from East Fourth Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (not to mention in the area immediately surrounding Saltillo Plaza)—would set a precedent for approval of more towers on the central Eastside. Others pointed to that inevitability and maintained, essentially, that the planning process could result in more resident/neighborhood-friendly buildings.
Under Endeavor’s current plan and design by Michael Hsu Office of Architecture, the 11-acre project includes 110,000 square feet of retail space, 120,000 square feet of offices, and 1.4 acres of open space that includes “paseos” (pedestrian and bicycle thoroughfares) connecting East Fourth and East Fifth streets and park space.
Commissioners brought up concerns with the traffic study, which shows a failure to meet acceptable standards at several intersections, while city officials and developers’ representatives explained that the plan relied on decreased vehicle traffic in the area due to increased pedestrian and bike connectivity.
The plan also includes 800 apartments, currently 90 percent one-bedroom and 10 percent two-bedroom, with 141 of them to be set aside as affordable units. The affordable rates go to residents who earn from 30 to 60 percent of median family income for Travis County.
Part of the plan that was originally attractive to most involved parties is that the affordable units will be “floating” units, rather than ones perpetually designated as affordable, so that any apartment in the building will potentially be an affordable one if it becomes available and is needed to fulfill the planned percentage of such units.
In addition, Endeavor will pay approximately $600,000 to the city of Austin’s affordable housing fund rather than add 40 more affordable units that would be required by the zoning change and modified plan approval. Opponents of the changes argue that the “fee in lieu” arrangement, not uncommon in such cases, is not nearly enough to create 40 equivalent affordable units offsite.
The arrangement is what prompted the question of whether or not there is a “compelling reason” to grant it, as the precedent is that it is primarily applied to commercial projects that are required to provide affordable residential space for various zoning reasons to do so offsite, not to projects that already contain residential elements.
The affordable housing provided by the current Saltillo plan is required if a developer wants to access the city’s density bonus and is not required if the developer chooses not to do that—something Saltillo developers could do if they can’t get the zoning change and the fee-in-lieu arrangement they are requesting.
Some commissioners also expressed concern over the lack of three- and four-bedroom apartments, which are generally considered more attractive to families with children. Endeavor reps assured them that they know the market for that area, and one- and two-bedroom apartments are what most renters in the neighborhood desire.
There was also discussion of how many of the market-rate units could be used as short-term rentals; the number would be limited by STR rules in general, which restrict the percentage allowed in buildings, neighborhoods, and census tracts.
While the president of the East César Chavez neighborhood planning team conveyed the group’s vote to oppose the zoning change and the neighborhood’s concerns about the project (versions of which it has supported in the past), there were very few other speakers who opposed the project during the citizen communication portion of the meeting, and a few neighbors and others spoke in favor of the plan.