We’re going to begin December by tying up some loose ends here at the Independent, specifically with some updates on zoning and land use cases we’ve reported on before, but until now we have not followed up with the results. Call it one of the challenges of a small operation, or trying to fight a fire with a garden hose. Today’s update focuses on the Stonegate neighborhood. In coming days we will do updates on zoning cases in Montopolis and on development issues over the Barton Springs Zone.
Stonegate is a small, historic East Austin neighborhood just south of Martin Luther King Blvd. and a few blocks west of US 183. The neighborhood was first developed in the early to mid 1960s when there were very few places that African Americans could build or buy new homes in Austin. Many Black professionals bought homes there and many of the original residents remain today.
We reported in July how the neighborhood was virtually surrounded by zoning cases in which developers and speculators were seeking to transform the character of the area. One case, at 5201 Martin Luther King, featured a development firm who advertised itself as “opportunistic investors with an eye for the overlooked.” On that case the neighborhood and the developers ultimately came to an agreement.
Another case at 5010 and 5102 Heflin Lane is on the December 3 Council agenda. There, developers want to build a 34 unit condominium project on five acres amidst existing single family homes. The project would would back up to a number of homes in Stonegate.
The same firm, Thrower Design, led by Ron Thrower, represents the developers of both properties. On the Heflin Lane case, Planning Commissioner James Shieh is also on the development team. He abstained when the case came to Planning Commission.
City staff is recommending an increase from “single family” to “higher density single family.” The Council agenda backup says the units would be “priced in the low $300Ks and supply a context sensitive missing middle housing type.” To back up its recommendation, staff cites the proximity to transit on Martin Luther King. Staff also cites a number of ways in which they see the proposed project as consistent with the neighborhood plan, although staff acknowledges that the number of units is higher than in the neighborhood plan. It is consistent with the plan, however, writes staff, in featuring “new, infill housing compatible with the existing style of this neighborhood,” allowing “a mix of residential types on larger tracts having access to major roadways” and providing “housing that helps to maintain the social and economic diversity of residents.”
The official Neighborhood Planning Contact Team for the East Martin Luther King planning area — larger than, but including Stonegate — took a neutral position. (Neighborhood Planning Contact Teams are groups of residents or business owners entrusted by fellow residents and business owners with shepherding implementation of neighborhood plans.) Five voted in favor, but a majority abstained saying, “The EMLK NPCT 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. The majority of our members therefore voted ‘neutral,’ believing that we cannot confidently support a plan amendment knowing that some of our members are unable to participate and vote using this platform.”
The Stonegate Neighborhood Association opposes the project as currently proposed, but has expressed a willingness to negotiate and offered a list of conditions under which they could support the project. Those are:
- “Limit vehicular access to the site to Heflin Lane, only.
- 7′-8′ privacy fence around the entire perimeter of the property, except for Heflin Lane.
- Keep all existing trees/vegetation within 10 feet of Stone Gate properties.
- Maximum height limit of all structures—35 feet.
- 25’ no-build setback from the lot lines of property with existing homes.
- Maximum unit count: 20; maximum of 15 homes east of the creek line and flood plain, arrayed facing a private street, rear of all structures oriented towards existing homes (as in diagram).
- Limit building typology to one- and two-unit structures.
- Prohibit short-term rental use.”
Neighborhood representatives have questioned the willingness of developers to negotiate, and expressed frustration with the pace and nature of negotiations.
Lifelong Stonegate resident Andrea Petit, a daughter of two of the original residents reminded Council in an email, “Stone Gate is situated in a 80% minority census tract identified as vulnerable to gentrification by the UT study and was set to be included in an overlay to minimize upzoning in the land development code rewrite. Historically black neighborhoods like ours are constantly being asked to compromise. And we have and continue to do so. Stone Gate Neighborhood has always been willing to work with developers as you know from experience. Where is their willingness to work with us like they told City Council they would at postponement?” (In the picture at the top of this article Catherine Petit, a Stonegate resident since 1965, and Andrea Petit’s mother, speaks to a gathering of neighbors on National Night Out in 2015)
Negotiations appeared to have resumed as the Council date for the item approached. Stay tuned.
As the Independent has reported before, Stonegate is just one of the East Austin neighborhoods that are under intense pressure from developers. Just to give one indication of the developer focus on central East Austin, 10 of the 18 zoning cases on this week’s Council agenda (December 3) are in central East Austin. To be fair some of these are multiple cases at the same address. Counting only the individual addresses on the agenda for proposed zoning cases, four of 12 are in central East Austin. The December 3 agenda, by the way, is relatively light on zoning cases by Austin City Council standards.
Meanwhile, About a Mile Away
Another major zoning case in central East Austin is making its way to the Council. That is a proposed large apartment complex near E. 12th and Springdale Road, just west of Springdale. This one is also drawing resistance, including catching the attention of former State Representative Wilhelmina Delco — a revered figure in East Austin. Delco had a strong message for the would be developers during a recent Zoom meeting about the E. 12th Street proposal. It is still one more example of how numerous long time East Austin residents do not see upzonings of areas zoned single family as the path to racial progress and social justice.
Wilhelmina Delco: “I think we need to go back in history. There was a time when black people could not build homes any place else. . . Now, we have built homes. We have built gardens. We have built schools that accomodate the community needs of our people; when we were not allowed to buy, build or attend schools anyplace else. We have a right to have a neighborhood. We have built our homes based on this being a community. It is now not just another commercial place for people to make money. And, I think it’s very important to consider the history, the importance of people building here when they could hardly afford to build, because they couldn’t build or buy any place else. . . Now, we have a community with good schools, with good playgrounds, with good community relations. . . And I, for one, resent people who come in and try to destroy or distort what we have built when we were not even allowed to move into other communities, much less build in them. This is a community we have developed and I resent somebody coming in and trying to destroy what we took generations to build for ourselves and our children. You can find other places to put an apartment building. . . I will fight it with everything I know because our community was struggled for, sacrificed for, because we had no other choice. Now, as soon as we build it here you come to destroy it. I hope we can prevent that.”
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