Updated Aug. 19 9:46 a.m.
Austin City Council will soon consider the rezoning of a Northwest Austin Luby's for the development of a nearly 300-unit housing complex after the project moved through the city zoning commission Aug. 17.
The Luby's Fuddruckers Restaurants-owned property is located on less than 2.5 acres of land at 8176 N. MoPac, Austin, and has been home to an operational Luby's cafeteria for decades. The proposed apartment complex planning is moving ahead nearly one year after Luby's announced its plans to dissolve and sell off its dozens of restaurant locations.
The project from developer Ardent Residential would see the Northwest Hills-area Luby's razed and the property redeveloped as a 275-unit housing complex, including 28 units labeled as affordable at 80% of the region's median family income, or MFI. During a presentation on behalf of the owner and development team, Armbrust & Brown attorneys said the project would end up contributing to one of Austin's least affordable areas.
“The city has set goals for housing and affordability in high-opportunity areas like Northwest Hills. ... However, progress is needed. In District 10, we’re already 1,667 units short of our city’s goals and falling further and further behind with each passing year," attorney Michael Whellan said. “This site offers a key opportunity for the next increment of growth."
According to city information as of mid-August, District 10 has one of the lowest counts of available affordable rental units at the 80% MFI level citywide. A restrictive covenant between the project team and the Northwest Austin Civic Association, which supports the development, would require 10% of the units on-site to remain available to those earning 80% MFI or below for 40 years.
While some commissioners shared differing views on the merit of the request for rezoning to MF-6, the city's highest-density multifamily category, most were in agreement that the proposal could provide a needed expansion of the District 10 affordable housing portfolio.
“I feel more confident that this is as best a project as we’ll see at this stage. The thing that I’m most confident about is that this project is the only way we’re going to get affordable housing in this part of town," Commissioner Ellen Ray said.
In addition to the affordability question, commissioners spent time debating the project's potential effects on known caves beneath the Luby's site. The topic of the property's underground environment came up during the project's Aug. 3 zoning hearing, resulting in a postponement to gather additional environmental information. On their second look at the project outline, commissioners once again spent time raising environmental concerns related to subterranean features, given the project plan's inclusion of several levels of underground parking.
The discussion came after a spring pause on the development team's site work resulted in an examination of the natural structures beneath the site, the Luby's Cave and Dead Dog cave system. The possible presence of endangered species in the caves was another item commissioners spent time reviewing Aug. 17, although an April analysis from Horizon Environmental Services completed at Ardent's request concluded the area "does not provide habitat" for such at-risk invertebrates.
With those previous conclusions on the table, commissioners also considered ways to require further reviews or restrictions related to the site's cave environment. In the end, a 5-1-4 vote moved the rezoning along to City Council without a commission recommendation, and with an acknowledgment from some commissioners of the remaining worries over the site's cave systems outside their purview.
“I understand that we are very concerned about ... the potential of delicate, critical environmental features underneath the property, and the idea of digging three stories below the property for parking seems dangerous for the water and the other features that could be underneath," Chair Nadia Barrera-Ramirez said.
Whellan also noted the development team's earlier pause on the site and said the applicant is willing to continue meeting with area residents and cave experts as the project moves along to council and potentially into site planning. He also said development work will be put on hold for city investigation if additional voids are uncovered during construction.
"Our client Arden Residential has been very proactive—more proactive than anybody I know of in the zoning phase of a redevelopment—to investigate a site that has caves, and we did so so that we could be proactive. And I think you’re going to see that type of conduct going forward throughout the process. ... We’re prepared to spend the time and money to investigate and address these types of questions," Whellan said.