Controversial Riverside Drive development divides city council on second reading

The Austin City Council has taken another step toward approving a controversial development project on East Riverside Drive. 

People in East Austin are calling the project gentrification, but the land owner, who wants to re-develop the property, said it's going to create affordable housing there. 

Thursday, even city council was split on whether to allow it. “This proposed project is not what Austin residents want,” said Olivia Tamzarian, who lives next to the proposed development on East Riverside Drive.

The 97-acre project would replace five apartment complexes near the Pleasant Valley Road intersection with a mixed-use development. The land owner instead wants to build thousands of multi-family units, as well as hotel rooms, office space, commercial space, parkland and affordable housing. 

To move forward, Austin City Council would need to approve zoning changes in the East Riverside corridor, something they have already done on first reading. “The rezoning in favor of the developers will force people like me out of this area and replace us with folks who can pay Domain prices. This threatens everything I've worked for the past 13 years in Austin,” Tamzarian said.   

Thursday, the zoning decision faced less pushback from protesters than in the past, but more from Austin City Council. “I think this is a rare case before us where it is a large enough tract, in an area that has not gentrified yet, where this really can be a cause or an accelerator of gentrification,” said City Councilman Greg Casar, District 4. 

“I will not be able to support this project or others like it that fundamentally change the economics and culture of an area and exacerbate gentrification and displacement,” said City Councilwoman Leslie Pool, District 7.  

The property owner has agreed to include 250 affordable units in the development, as well as 10 units for people experiencing homelessness. “I mean, 10 people? 10 people? It's almost like a morsel or a crumb that they give us to pretend like it's not a devastating effect,” Tamzarian said.  

Tamzarian said the project would have a devastating effect on everyone in her neighborhood, likely forcing many families living near the development out. “So, when they construct new luxury or even mid-range apartments, every time they do that, my rent goes up,” she said.  

“We're not ignoring your pleas; we're not ignoring your concerns. I'm from Austin. You don't think I've watched it grow and change in my 42 years of life?” said City Councilwoman Natasha Harper-Madison, District 1. “We need to guarantee and have and work with those developers to have as much affordable units as we can get from them,” said City Councilman Pio Renteria, District 3. 

In the end, the vote was an even split. Council members Casar, Pool, Kathie Tovo, Alison Alter and Delia Garza voted against the zoning changes and Harper-Madison, Jimmy Flannigan, Ann Kitchen, Renteria, Mayor Steve Adler and Paige Ellis voted in favor. 

“They're going to be back here in a couple years saying, ‘Oh no, it's too gentrified. Let's do something. Let's spend a lot of money and energy to try to combat that.’ They can just nip the problem in the bud now and avoid all that,” Tamzarian said.  

Council will have to vote on the zoning changes one more time before the project can move forward. That will likely happen at the next council meeting.



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