A tiny tract of land in East Austin has neighbors all around it frustrated over its fate, but grateful that its legacy will at last be honored.
At 2724 E. 12th Street NAPA Ventures LLC wants to construct a five-story, 30-unit, 60-foot tall, mixed-income apartment building. NAPA purchased the site in 2013, then in December 2015 filed a development plan with the city. Ron Pope of TAG International is the architect.
The developer has been going in circles trying to bring the community on board ever since. Earlier this month, the City of Austin Planning Commission revisited the project and came within a hair’s breadth of passing it.
The property has almost too many obstacles to count. A floodplain and drainage easement makes it impossible to build on the southern third of the land. It is right next to a light rail track.
“We had to be pretty creative with our architecture and civil design to build around these constraints,” said Michele Lynch, an attorney with Metcalfe Wolff Stuart & Williams that spoke for the developer.
The developer needs a setback variance, which is the reason NAPA was before the commission. Three other issues stand out:
- A prior developer promised to build an affordable housing complex on the site, but was never able to get the financing.
- The site is a small remnant of Emancipation Park, a privately-owned community park African-Americans established in 1906 and used during segregation because they weren’t allowed in Austin’s public parks. Residents wanted the developer to set aside land for public access that would include a monument to memorialize the site where Emancipation Park once existed.
- Neighbors west of Downs-Mabson Fields have used the vacant lot as a cut-through pedestrian path to get to the public transit the MLK Jr. Station and to the hike and bike trail.
Shravan Parsi, a principal with NAPA, began meeting with neighbors in March.
Cavan Merski, chairman of the Chestnut Neighborhood Planning Contact Team, told commissioners that Parsi initially claimed to be unaware that in 2013 he was told by the Chestnut NPCT what conditions were expected when the prior developer was permitted to rezone the site for multi-family.
In the months that followed, Parsi made a good faith attempt to meet the three conditions set by the Chestnut NPCT.
Lynch explained to the commissioners what NAPA could do.
The project would include six units out of the 30 that would be priced at 80 percent of the area median family income, Lynch said. In addition, one of the six would be a two-bedroom unit suitable for a small family. The prior developer had offered 40 percent of the units would be affordable housing, but the current offer is at 20 percent.
In the floodplain area, NAPA would install a monument commemorating the park, which was condemned by the city in the 1940s to build segregated public housing. The monument would have access from 12th Street and bench seating, Lynch said.
“From a pedestrian access point, that was a little more sticky,” Lynch said.
The only practical route for a pedestrian path was along the western boundary where NAPA was asking for a 5-foot setback (instead of the mandatory 25 feet) for motor vehicle and bicycle parking and a transformer pad.
But the neighbors along the western boundary were “adamantly opposed,” Lynch emphasized, to a dedicated path right next to their fence lines. She could not promise to preserve the cut-through path.
“Everyone walks through it now,” Merski said of the vacant lot. “I think it’s great that they’re offering the monument, but nobody is going to go to it if you have to walk around to 12th and into their apartment complex where they don’t live.”
Planning Commissioner Trinity White, who lives in the neighborhood, voiced the panel consensus on the pedestrian issue.
“I appreciate that there’s going to be some affordability. I especially appreciate that there will be an Emancipation monument. But the thing that I think is most frustrating is the lack of connectivity. It’s a conversation that we’re constantly having and the fact that there is a TOD right there!”
“And yet, you have to walk all the way around to MLK, which I do. My son goes to daycare right on the other side of that MLK access,” White said.
Chairman Stephen Oliver spoke in support:
“We should be saying emphatically-connectivity to that station is a gigantic deal that cannot be passed up, and adjacent neighbors should, in my opinion, recognize the value of this path to the larger community cannot be understated.”
Lynch said the area where a path would go would not be used for anything else. Provided the Chestnut NPCT is ever able to convince the neighbors to allow for its use, the path would be ready.
Nevertheless, the Commission postponed a decision to the Jan. 10 meeting to give the Chestnut NPCT time to sign an agreement relating to the affordable housing component. Lynch created a private restrictive covenant to assure that one of the six affordable units would be a two-bedroom, but no one would sign it and the assistant city attorney insisted there had to be two parties to the contract to make it enforceable.
Merski said he had not signed it because he wanted more conditions.
“Upon review, I would sign to the monument and the two-bedroom, should this waiver be approved,” Merski said.