A good example of the Austin Planning Commission’s heavy-handed, dismissive approach to East and Southeast Austin residents of color can be heard this Tuesday, July 14, when upzoning cases in the East MLK neighborhood and Montopolis community go before the Planning Commission. Please follow these new guidelines to let the Commissioners know that you want them to listen to the residents and stop displacing residents of color.

The Austin Planning Commission will rehear an application by developer Ryan Walker (represented by agent Ron Thrower) to rezone a 2.64 acre tract in the East MLK Neighborhood surrounded by single-family zoning, and adjacent to the Blair Woods Nature Preserve which contain the Coleman Springs.  The developer is asking for the zoning to be changed from single family to MF-6, the highest level of multifamily zoning available, which allows unlimited units, 90 feet in height and 80% impervious cover.

The neighborhood plan written by the community, designated this tract for something different: Mixed Residential. Mixed Residential calls for a mixture of duplex, townhouses and apartments, with 50% of the tract to be single-family residential. What the applicant seeks—only multi-family development with no single-family—conflicts with the Future Land Use Map (FLUM) of the neighborhood plan and cannot be properly granted without a FLUM amendment.  The applicant’s proposed rezoning would require a different FLUM designation: Multifamily. Ignoring this process disrespects the community’s decision and violates their rights.

Neighborhood residents gave testimony to the Planning Commission via email and a June 23rd teleconference. They voiced concerns about flooding because their neighborhood is in an identified localized flood area. They gave testimony that this and other nearby rezonings would greatly impact what they see as the quality of their neighborhood, which is within a census tract that is holding on to the largest black population center in Austin.

“As you know, East Austin has traditionally been the community that has been forced to create its own identity without support from Austin leadership. And so we have. We have created single family neighborhoods where families live for generations, passing on the properties that were purchased when the neighborhood was built and handed down to future generations. This neighborhood is one of the first places that black professionals were encouraged to create family neighborhoods and encouraged to create an environment within which they could launch their children successfully into the world. This has not been an easy path but it has been consistent.”

They wrote about their doubts about the Commission’s virtual land use meetings:

“However, the EMLK NPCT [Neighborhood Planning Contact Team] grows increasingly concerned that, because our meetings and city land use hearings are happening virtually and therefore require internet access, and because local libraries and other venues that serve as access portals for many are currently closed, not all of our residents can fully participate in this process.”

Travis Audubon, who owns and operates the Blair Woods Nature preserve and education center said:

“Our main opposition to MF-6 concerns the high density and impervious cover allowances for surface parking. Blair Woods is home to Coleman Springs… . The possibility of flooding and pollution of this water source from runoff from the proposed 80% impervious cover is a huge concern for the overall health of the preserve. Damage to the springs would have detrimental effects to the wildlife and habitat at Blair Woods.”

After closing the public hearing several commissioners contended that the possibility of affordable housing and transit should have priority for them over the community’s wishes and environmental concerns.  Several commissioners voiced concern that it wasn’t clear that there were any guarantees that affordable housing would be built at this site. The City staff responded that later at the time of the site plan (after the developer gets the zoning) they could choose not to build the affordable “S.M.A.R.T” housing and they only would have to pay back their waived fees

A vote was taken and the staff recommendation of mid-density multifamily (MF-3) was passed by a majority, notwithstanding the fact that this zoning change conflicts with the Neighborhood Plan FLUM.

What happened next was highly unusual. After the neighborhood residents left the teleconference, a commissioner moved procedurally to essentially rehear the matter at the next Commission hearing when the developer and his Planning Commission allies hope to pressure Commissioners and push the zoning up to MF-6, the highest density in residential zoning.

Apparently, developers and their speculator allies get special treatment and two bites at the apple, while the neighbors are dismissed as simply an unenlightened impediment to their grandiose development plans. The views of the community, the neighborhood plan they created, and their hard-earned homeownership do not matter to the Commission or the City.

The Commissioners were just as dismissive of the residents of the Montopolis neighborhood. The Montopolis rezoning application asked for “missing middle” zoning on single family tracts.  The Montopolis Neighborhood Contact Team wrote in opposition:

“Montopolis, also known as “Poverty Island,” has a per capita income of $16,226, a Median Family Income of $31,875, and a poverty rate of 33% according to 2018 American Community Survey data. Accordingly, we guard our existing SF-3 owned property jealously, as we are a community of families. The Austin Human Rights Commission has declared gentrification to be a human rights violation. We call upon the Planning Commission and Austin City Council to reject this gentrifying up zoning in the name of racial justice and reconciliation. Montopolis has too much history and culture to be sliced up by the forces of unscrupulous real estate development in this fashion. The highest and best use of our land is protection, not speculation.”

While the chair of the Planning Commission wore a t-shirt showing his “support” of a latino community member, he and a majority of Commissioners voted to pass the upzoning, disregarding the community’s testimony and Neighborhood Plan.

Five more upzonings from single-family to “missing middle” zoning are being heard at the Tuesday, July 14th Planning Commission Meeting. These “missing middle” homes are not designed for or affordable for Montopolis’ low income residents of color. “Coincidentally” they have the same agent as the east MLK case, Ron Thrower.

One long-time Montopolis resident explained:

“We [The Montopolis Neighborhood Contact team] welcome development that is in keeping with the single family history and culture of our neighborhood. These proposed zoning changes are about real estate speculation, plain and simple, and their enactment would adversely impact the integrity of our community by violating what makes and keeps it unique. Regarding the Missing Middle™ justification floating around in association with these zoning cases, there is a lot I could say, but I’ll keep it short: even academia now concedes that in 2020 such neoliberal planning notions only help to perpetuate institutional racism. Our community would best benefit from truly bottom up development that allows families to remain in their homes and grow out of poverty, not by the zealous application of (properly trademarked) religious tomfoolery of dubious sponsorship masquerading as urban planning insight. Stated plainly, there is no “missing middle” justification for these zoning changes.”

City Hall claims that the viewpoints of Austinites of color matter—but this doesn’t seem to be the case when they get in the way of City plans and land developer profits.  This is why Austin is the most intensely gentrifying city in Texas and in the top 10 of the whole US, but the City of Austin has no real anti-displacement program like the one proposed by “The People’s Plan,” even after numerous studies and professed concerns.

Austin needs to stop talking the talk, and start walking the walk.

It is time to stand up to the Planning Commission, the City, and their developer allies. The Planning Commission needs to listen to East Austin residents, stop their we-know-best arrogance, and end their procedural shenanigans. Please contact the Commissioners and sign up to testify and tell them to respect these communities of color, their views and their plans.

Here are the case number of the zoning changes:

C14-2020-0031: SF-3-NP -> MF-6-NP, 5201 East Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, 2.64 Acres

PROPERTY OWNER: 5201 E MLK LP (Ryan Walker) Agent: Thrower Design(Ron Thrower)

Already Approved, Look for it at Council:

NPA-2019-0015.01 SF-4-> SF-6, 5010 & 5102 Heflin Lane, Approx. 5.11 acres

PROPERTY OWNER: Heflin Phase I LLC AGENTS: Ron Thrower, Thrower Design

Already Approved, Look for it at Council:

C14-2020-0022 SF-4-> SF-6, 5010 & 5102 Heflin Lane, Approx. 5.03 acres

PROPERTY OWNER: Heflin Phase I LLC AGENTS: Ron Thrower, Thrower DesignC14-2020-0029 – SF-3-NP -> SF-6-NP,1013 and 1017 Montopolis Dr., 3.12 acres

PROPERTY OWNER: Montopolis Acres LP (Danny Walker) AGENT: Thrower Design (Ron Thrower)

C14-2020-0030 –SF-3-NP -> SF-6-NP, 200 Montopolis Drive and 6206 Clovis Street, 1.32 acres

PROPERTY OWNER: Nine Banded Holdings LLC (Taylor Jackson) AGENT: Thrower Design (Ron Thrower)

C14-2020-0039 –SF-3-NP -> SF-6-NP, 6201 Clovis Street and 301 Kemp Street, 1.167 acres

PROPERTY OWNER: 3SC Venture LLC (Gary O’Dell) AGENT: Thrower Design (Ron Thrower)

C14-2020-0030 –SF-3-NP -> SF-6-NP, 200 Montopolis Drive and 6206 Clovis Street, 1.32 acres

PROPERTY OWNER: Nine Banded Holdings LLC (Taylor Jackson) AGENT: Thrower Design (Ron Thrower)

C14-2020-0044 –SF-3-NP -> SF-6-NP, 316 Saxon Lane & 6328 El Mirando Street, 2.9 acres

PROPERTY OWNER: Saxon Acres LLC (Danny Walker) AGENT: Thrower Design ( Ron Thrower)

Already Approved, look for it at Council

C14-2020-0038 –SF-3-NP -> SF-6-NP,508 Kemp Street, 2.16 acres

PROPERTY OWNER: Johnny A. Steen AGENT: Drenner Group (Leah M. Bojo)