Controversial Riverside project moves closer to approval as Austin City Council seeks affordability guarantees

The 4700 East Riverside project has been a controversial development, giving rise to several protests. Protesters were escorted out during Austin City Council's Aug. 8 meeting.

The 4700 East Riverside project has been a controversial development, giving rise to several protests. Protesters were escorted out during Austin City Council's Aug. 8 meeting.

Updated Aug. 9 at noon to clarify which council member moved to approve the zoning changes on first reading

Austin City Council tentatively approved a series of zoning changes for a 97-acre mixed-use project planned at the intersection of East Riverside Drive and South Pleasant Valley Road.

Thursday's 9-2 vote came after a first reading of the project. Council members said that when the project comes back for a second reading, they want to guarantee there will be affordable units as a result of the increased height allowances. The council also wanted to codify protections for parkland on the site before approving the changes in full.

The developer, a joint venture between Nimes Capital and Presidium, is seeking to rezone the property to include a mix of uses, taller buildings and an ability to participate in the city’s density bonus program.

The site currently houses apartment buildings that are largely rented by students and considered affordable, despite not being formally income-restricted.

A local advocacy group, Defend Our Hoodz, has been a vocal critic of the project. Members were escorted out of City Hall chambers by police before council members took up the zoning case.

Many council members raised concerns about allowing for buildings to exceed to current zoning of 40 feet without ensuring affordable units are built. The density bonus program only applies to buildings that exceed 60 feet.

“It’s a [question of], ‘Do we keep affordable housing stock for we don’t know how long or a big question mark?” said Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, who represents District 2.

Council Member Greg Casar said he had concerns about the project’s impact on affordable housing in the area and council’s expediency.

“I think in this case we are actually setting a lower standard than we are across the city with our code rewrite,” he said, suggesting that council hold the developer to the affordability requirements proposed as part of the city’s land code redevelopment.

Casar also raised concerns about the speed of the approval process, pointing out that other zoning cases for smaller projects had received much more discussion from council.

“If this case had been somewhere else and we heard from people who live nearby, my sense is we wouldn’t be moving on with this,” he said, referencing the number of students who live in the area.

Casar added that council will soon hear a rezoning case about the future of the Austin American-Statesman property and said he does not expect it to be approved in one day. Likewise, he mentioned that council spent more than six months considering a zoning case regarding the Grove at Shoal Creek development in North Austin, which is smaller than the proposed project on Riverside.

As a result, Council Member Pio Renteria—who represents District 3, where the project will be located—revised his motion to approve the zoning changes on first reading as opposed to granting them outright.

Casar and Garza cast the two votes against the zoning case on first reading Thursday. But other council members seemed optimistic that the project could be adapted to address these concerns.

“I would hate to lose this project and have nothing but high-end [housing] built on this area,” Renteria said.

Council is scheduled to take up the zoning case again on Aug. 22.
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