Plaza Saltillo development proposal advances to Austin City Council: 5 things to know

Plaza Saltillo is a proposed mixed-use site on 11 acres in East Austin between Fourth and Fifth streets and I-35 and Onion Street.

Plaza Saltillo is a proposed mixed-use site on 11 acres in East Austin between Fourth and Fifth streets and I-35 and Onion Street.

The Austin Planning Commission approved the Plaza Saltillo proposed mixed-use development for a zoning variance Tuesday with a vote of 9-4.

The long-awaited project has stalled since the landowner, Capital Metro Transportation Authority, picked Endeavor Real Estate Group to develop the 10.5-acre property in 2014. On Tuesday, the project picked up some momentum after the Planning Commission voted to approve zoning and height variances for the project, both of which were met with a mix of  scrutiny and praise from commissioners and the public.

Here are five things to know about the Plaza Saltillo MUD before it heads to City Council for final approval.

1. The Plaza Saltillo project has a long history

The currently vacant tract was purchased by CapMetro in 1995 as part of a nearly $10 million deal to acquire a 162-mile freight track from Southern Pacific Railroad. Nearly two decades later, in 2014, the city’s transportation authority put out a Request for Proposal to develop the land. However, even after the CapMetro board narrowly approved Endeavor Real Estate Group’s bid in 2014, it took the two sides nearly two years to agree to terms on the development.

The Planning Commission postponed its decision numerous times since September while Endeavor continued to tweak its proposal.

2. The East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood is split in support of the project

At the center of all of this is the East Cesar Chavez Street Neighborhood Association, which, according to testimony given on Tuesday, is polarized by the project. Several residents of the District 3 neighborhood voiced support for the project for its improvement of pedestrian and bikeways as well as its commitment to open space. “This is the kind of development that solves problems,” said Matteo Barnstone, a resident of the neighborhood.

“This is the kind of development that solves problems,” said Matteo Barnstone, a resident of the neighborhood.

However, other residents voiced opposition to the project. Jose Valera, chair of the East Cesar Chavez planning team, said many residents want to support the project but cannot because of uncertainty surrounding the project’s affordable housing proposal.

3. The affordable housing proposal gets complicated

The project’s affordable housing component has been under the microscope by commissioners and residents. Current plans have 141 of the proposed 800 units in the mixed-use development to be offered as affordable—just more than 17 percent. Community Impact Newspaper reported in 2014 that Endeavor originally committed to offering 25 percent of the unit as affordable, but Jason Thumlert, an Endeavor representative, said Tuesday the real estate group was always committed to 15 percent affordability—but would allow the city to subsidize another 10 percent 0f the units.

Existing plans offer 100 units for affordable senior living on one tract, and the other 41 affordable units will be “floating” throughout the other five tracts of land. One commissioner praised the affordable aspect as among the most aggressive programs that city has seen, with 10 percent of the units being offered at 30 percent of the area's median family income, and 40 percent of units would be offered at 50 percent MFI. The other half of affordable units would be offered at 60-percent MFI.

However, other commissioners voiced concerns that the affordable units were limited in size, as 84 percent of the affordable units are slated to be one-bedroom, while only 16-percent will be two-bedroom units. Commissioners said this limits availability for families. Overall, roughly 90 percent of the 800 units are proposed to be one-bedroom units.

4. Building height is a concern for residents

The mixed-use development was approved for several building height variances, the most of aggressive of which was an increase from the allowed 60-foot height limit to 125 feet for an office building, and other buildings were increased to roughly 70-feet tall.

Residents of the East Austin neighborhood and commissioners alike voiced concern that the building height would set a precedent and allow for the construction of other tall buildings in the relatively low-lying neighborhood, compromising the neighborhood’s character. The commissioners approved language they felt would protect the building height from setting such a precedent, explaining the variance was allowed strictly because it was public land and near a rail station.

5. City Council will get the final say at the end of this month

After two years of back and forth and almost two decades of planning, Austin City Council will get the final say on the Plaza Saltillo project proposal.

The zoning case is expected to come up during the Jan. 26 meeting, the council’s first of the year. Expect discussion regarding the affordable housing aspect, as affordable housing is a main focus in the city’s comprehensive plan, Imagine Austin, and has held much weight in other recent development decisions.