After repeated postponements, the Planning Commission will finally take up what could be the biggest zoning case in a generation: Project Catalyst, or as it was recently humbly renamed, 4700 East Riverside.
It’s a 97 acre mixed-use development centered at E. Riverside and Pleasant Valley. The plan is about 4 million square feet of office and around 4,700 residential units. The developer, Presidium, says 8-12% (400-550) of the units will be income-restricted.
This project has gained prominence over the last year due to the opposition it has attracted from Defend Our Hoodz, a group of anti-gentrification activists. DoH was originally founded by a veteran east side activist in response to the demolition of the Jumpolin piñata store on E. Cesar Chavez, but it was eventually taken over by 20-something radicals. They’re not a particularly large group, but they show up at every meeting related to the project and disrupt it. They will almost certainly show up tomorrow.
Folks with more credibility than DoH will likely voice concerns about gentrification and displacement as well. While the income-restricted units are significant, the rest of the units will likely be very pricey. Much pricier than the Ballpark Apartments, a student-oriented complex that will be demolished to make way for the new development.
CM Greg Casar previewed his stance on the project when he opposed rezoning the nearby Mesh Apartments. Although the rezoning will allow greater density and a certain percentage of the new units will be income-restricted, Casar says he is opposed to upzoning existing multifamily properties that provide low-cost housing. He worries that upzonings will incentivize their redevelopment into luxury housing.
What was interesting in the Mesh debate, if we can even call it a debate, was the lack of opposition from the West Austin anti-growth crowd. There was not a peep from Tovo, Alter, Pool, the three who are most likely to claim that upzoning single-family properties will result in displacement. Will the same dynamic play out at 4,700 E. Riverside?
While opponents of the project will make it appear that Council has the choice to either preserve the Ballpark Apartments or bulldoze them to create luxury units, that fact is that the developer does not need permission to do that.
Council’s choice is this: It can do nothing and inevitably the developer will redevelop the properties with no affordable housing. Or Council can negotiate a major upzoning in return for certain community benefits, notably affordable housing.
Beyond the affordable housing, another major benefit of the new development will be density and mixed use. The existing multifamily properties on E. Riverside aren’t particularly dense due to the enormous amount of space they devote to surface parking. For instance, the Ballpark Apartments is about 13.5 units/acre, which is about the same density as the most common form of single-family zoning in town (SF-3).
Unlike the current properties, the new multifamily will hopefully be up on the street, rather than behind gated parking lots. Along with the office and commercial, this should create a more walkable, transit-oriented area. This nicely compliments the city’s plans for the E. Riverside corridor, the only one of the city’s major corridors that has been designated for the full treatment of urbanist improvements, including protected bike lanes, wide sidewalks, streetscaping, etc. And of course, Riverside will also be home to high-capacity transit –– dedicated right-of-way for bus-rapid transit or light rail –– if voters approve Project Connect in 2020.
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