Plaza Saltillo project headed to Austin City Council for vote


Highlights

Some commissioners worried a tall office building will set a bad precedent, but a majority OK’d the project.

The council could take up the long-delayed project by late January.

The Austin Planning Commission gave its blessing Tuesday evening for a zoning change and extra building height for the proposed Plaza Saltillo development on Capital Metro land in East Austin.

The 9-4 vote moves the 11-acre project just east of Interstate 35 to the Austin City Council, which may consider it later this month. And the developer group, Endeavor Real Estate Group and Columbus Realty Partners, will be able to retain a level of affordable units that some in the neighborhood had considered low, as well as a 125-foot-high office building and a mix of apartment sizes that made some commission members uncomfortable.

Commission members were worried that the office building, about three times as high as what is typically allowed in the heavily residential area, will set a precedent that could lead to the proliferation of tall buildings in near East Austin. And some thought that more of the 800 planned apartments should have two bedrooms, or even three. As it stands, almost 90 percent of the apartments will have one bedroom.

The zoning change would allow Endeavor and Columbus to increase building heights from the current 60 feet to 68 feet through much of the development and to 70 feet on one block, along with the much taller office building near I-35 and East Fifth Street. The developers will lease the property for 99 years under a pending deal with Capital Metro, and would pay the transit agency more than $200 million over the life of the lease.

Detailed design, officials with the developer said, showed that the ground floor retail spaces had to be 20 feet high, and that the apartments above needed 10-foot-high ceilings rather than eight-foot ceilings, leading to the request for a few extra feet of building height.

Endeavor’s overall plan would include 100 apartments reserved for seniors, 110,000 square feet of retail and 120,000 square feet of offices. The site would also have about 1.4 acres of open space, including a park section and 60-feet-wide “pocket park paseos” connecting East Fourth and East Fifth streets. San Marcos Street, which currently is interrupted by the rail yard, would be cut through from Fourth to Fifth.

Under Endeavor’s current plan, 141 of those 800 apartments (about 17.6 percent) would be set aside as “affordable” units for 40 years, defined in this case as having rents at or below half the median family income in Travis County. The developer would also pay approximately $660,000 to Austin’s affordable housing fund in lieu of pricing another 40 units at the lower rents, city planning staff said.

Jason Thumlert, an Endeavor principal, had said in June 2014 (as the Capital Metro board was mulling which of several companies would get the right to develop the property) that the company was committed to providing 25 percent of the units as affordable. The Capital Metro board, shortly after his remarks, voted 5-3 to negotiate with Endeavor as the winner.

But by this March, when the Capital Metro board unanimously approved the terms growing from those 20 months of talks, the guarantee for affordable units was revealed to be 15 percent instead. Getting to 25 percent, Endeavor and Capital Metro have said, depends on city government subsidizing that additional 10 percent of the units. The city is not interested in doing so, Thumlert said this week.

How much would that cost?

Michele Haussmann, representing Endeavor, said the company does not know at this point what buying that additional 10 percent would cost the city.

That seeming change in the project’s affordable housing percentage — Endeavor officials say their original 2014 proposal, never revealed publicly, had the 15 percent developer-10 percent city mix — has energized opponents, at least one of which was a partner in a development group rejected by the Capital Metro board.

But the developer produced a string of supporters Tuesday evening, including Dan Alvarez, who lives on nearby Attayac Street with his wife and two preschool children.

The project, Alvarez said, “would bring much needed passages for pedestrians where currently there are none. It will clean up the desolate rail yard, and include the creation of beautiful park space. And the office building will provide a transition from the west to the east, and end a legacy of stark differentiation.

“I think this project is awesome,” he said.

The city of Austin Planning Commission, on a 9-4 vote, approved taller buildings for the 11-acre project.



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