The COVID-19 pandemic and this week’s winter storm have dealt our community a series of heavy blows, but Austin’s land speculators don’t seem fazed. This Thursday, they’re rushing back to City Hall with another egregious rezoning request targeting Montopolis, one of the East Side’s most storied low-income neighborhoods.
Under the cover of the pandemic, with public participation hobbled by the weather and City Hall’s broken municipal-hearing process, the Austin City Council will consider an over-the-top request to bring downtown-style buildings to one of the area’s single-family-zoned properties. It’s the latest in a long series of rezoning requests targeting the neighborhood, and together they threaten to displace numerous families that have called it home for generations.
Will our “progressive” city council listen to the objections of those hardworking residents, or will it perpetuate Austin’s systemic displacement of low-income people of color?
The zoning case involves a lot which is next to Nuestra Senora de los Dolores Catholic Church and currently zoned for single-family use (SF-3). The applicants are seeking to rezone the parcel to the highest-density multifamily zoning available (MF-6), which will allow luxury developments as tall as 90 feet and send land prices and property taxes skyrocketing.
In the words of the city’s staff, “[n]o specific details about the potential development or site plan layout were contained within their application.” In other words, the request is pure speculation—an attempt to raise the speculative value of the property through the award of entitlements at the expense of the community. Even the developer-friendly Austin Business Journal has started to cry foul, arguing that the increasingly frenzied land speculation is displacing longtime residents of the East Side and is “leading to rapid gentrification.”
Rezoning requests like this one are also part of an old bait-and-switch game played between City Hall and local land developers. According to the city’s own zoning guide, MF-6 is appropriate in areas adjacent to Austin’s central business district—not residential neighborhoods zoned SF-3, which surround the lot in question. It’s too outrageous a request to be accepted fully, but it allows land developers and city decisionmakers to appear “reasonable” when they settle on less-intensive but nonetheless incompatible rezoning (like MF-4, for instance).
In their neighborhood plan, Montopolis residents had proposed single-family use for this property, hoping to combat the gentrification and displacement that already runs rampant in their at-risk community. The developer initially sought SF-6 (townhome and condominium) zoning, implicitly acknowledging that denser multifamily zoning is inappropriate for the site—but then it reneged on the offer and began pushing for MF-6. Through their neighborhood contact team, area residents have indicated that they are prepared to work with the developer’s original SF-6 request.
Unfortunately, Austin’s Planning Commission played along with the land developer’s game, sidelined residents, and issued a “reasonable” recommendation for an MF-4 rezoning of the site. MF-4 allows for an intense, multifamily density incompatible with and unwanted by nearby neighborhoods—and unless we act now, the city council is poised to make the same determination.
Montopolis deserves better treatment. Older than Austin, the neighborhood has been designated a “sensitive and vulnerable” area under federal Health and Human Services guidelines. Its median family income is $32,000, only about one-third of the citywide figure ($97,500)—meaning that virtually all of the neighborhood’s current homes qualify as affordable housing for minority families. It should be protected and supported by municipal anti-displacement programs, not plundered as an extension of fast-gentrifying Riverside Drive. Austinites should stand up for this low-income neighborhood, not push its residents farther and farther out of their community.
Which “golden rule” will our mayor and council follow this Thursday … the golden rule of speculators, where profits trump everything, or the golden rule of our faiths, which commands us to treat others as we would want to be treated?
It’s time to stop the cycle of speculation, gentrification, and displacement of low-income communities of color in East Austin. Contact our mayor and council using the contact information below, and ask them to vote against Item Nos. 62 and 63 on the February 18 agenda. If the developer isn’t willing to work with community members to fashion an appropriate zoning change that works for everyone, then the request should simply be denied.
Together we can build an Austin for everyone!
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Here are the full details on this Thursday’s cases:
Item No. 62
NPA-2020-0005.01 (neighborhood plan amendment) Conduct a public hearing and approve an ordinance amending Ordinance No. 010927-05 the Montopolis Neighborhood Plan, an element of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, to change the land use designation on the future land use map (FLUM) on property locally known as 1013 and 1017 Montopolis Drive (Country Club East/Carson Creek Watershed) from Single Family to Multifamily land use.
Item No. 63
C14-2020-0029 – Montopolis Acres Rezoning Conduct a public hearing and approve an ordinance amending City Code Title 25 by rezoning property locally known as 1013 and 1017 Montopolis Drive (Carson Creek Watershed). Applicant Request: To rezone from single family residence-neighborhood plan (SF-3-NP) combining district zoning to multifamily residence highest density-neighborhood plan (MF-6-NP) combining district zoning, as amended.