Debate continues over Riverside redevelopment project

People in East Austin are calling a proposed project on East Riverside Drive and South Pleasant Valley Road gentrification, but the land owner, who wants to re-develop the property, said it's going to create affordable housing there. 

Several people showed up to protest the project at Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting, but, in the end, the commission voted to recommend zoning changes required for the redevelopment to City Council.

East Riverside Drive is one of many Austin neighborhoods experiencing considerable growth. “If you look at what has happened, change has already occurred in this area and change is going to continue to occur,” said Michael Whellan, an attorney with Armbrust & Brown who represents the land owner.  

The proposed 97-acre project would grow the area even more, replacing five apartment complexes with a mixed use development.“The structures that are there were not built to last. They were built in the 90's, late 90's, and they're stick built, and they were student purpose built,” Whellan said.  

The land owner instead wants to build 4,709 multi-family units, 600 hotel rooms, office space, commercial space, 20 acres of parkland and affordable housing. 

“Currently there are no units that are income restricted at the site and what we are proposing, and it depends on the amount of height that we get, is 400-550 affordable units at 60% mean-family income at the site,” said Whellan. 
“There is no way the new housing will be affordable. It's going to be market rate. They are offering some affordable housing, but we currently have 1,300 units that are all affordable,” said Susana Almanza, president of the Montopolis Neighborhood Planning Contact Team. 

Many people in East Austin fear if zoning changes allow the land owner to build a 160-foot-high, or 10-story, building it will increase traffic along with the population. “We're very much concerned about the density, because we're talking about 1,300 units going away, 6,000 more units,” Almanza said. 

“If we develop it further out of the city, then we are condemning ourselves to sprawl and even more traffic,” said Whellan. The land owner said anyone who loses an apartment because of the re-development will not be left out on the street. 

“We will then do above and beyond by helping with relocation, moving expenses and relocating people, anybody and everybody that's there,” Whellan said.    

The project will take between 10-20 years to construct once it is approved by the city, but if City Council denies the zoning change to the height agreement in that area, the planned affordable housing units will also be taken off the table. 

“The true debate is about getting and capturing as much affordable housing as possible that is income restricted. That's the key. The housing that is currently there is not income restricted and there is nothing that prevents the owners from either raising rents or redeveloping the property from what currently exists,” said Whellan. 

City Council will make the final decision. They plan to discuss the zoning change in August.