Police remove protesters from Planning Commission meeting

Several protesters were removed from a heated Austin Planning Commission meeting at City Hall Tuesday night. 

The commission was debating whether to recommend zoning changes for a controversial development near East Riverside Drive and South Pleasant Valley Road. 

Five apartment complexes would be replaced if the proposal moves forward, but the developer will have to clear some hurdles at City Hall to change the zoning from neighborhood mixed use to commercial mixed use. 

"Austin’s not just for the rich, we won’t move another inch,” protesters chanted during the public comment period of the Planning Commission meeting. 

Commissioners gave several warnings that if disruptions continued, the people responsible would be removed from the building. 

The majority of demonstrators and speakers were worried about what will happen to low-income and working class families if the commission, and eventually Austin City Council, approves the zoning changes. 

“My concern was all the displacement and gentrification. So, I look at it as a continuation of what's been happening to East Austin and to the people who've been here for generations,” said Susana Almanza, president of the Montopolis Neighborhood Planning Contact Team who was at Tuesday’s meeting. 

The developer, who already owns the property, has proposed a plan that would wipe out 1,300 apartments and replace them with about 4,000 multifamily units, 600 hotel rooms, 4,000,000 square feet of office space and more than 400,000 square feet of commercial space.

“They call it the East Domain,” Almanza said.  

Getting a recommendation from the Planning Commission was the first step to do that. 

“The staff recommendation is to approve these changes as requested by the applicant,” said Jerry Rusthoven of the Planning and Zoning Department. 

Protesters at the meeting didn't hold back their anger about the project, chanting over speakers and, at one point, pounding on the furniture. 

“Ya'll, that is scaring me. Seriously, that is crazy,” said Angela Garza, who was speaking at the podium at the time.  

Commissioners turned to police to remove protestors from the room at that point. 

“I think it got a little bit out of hand, but I could understand. There's times I want to jump up and say things,” Almanza said.  

The developer said he will include between 400 and 565 affordable housing units in construction plans, but some at the meeting said that won't come close to the number of low-priced apartments the area will lose. 

“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 Almanza. 

The commission eventually voted to send a recommendation for zoning changes to council, but they said they will include a letter asking council to consider certain things, including a right to return for anyone who has lived in one of the affected apartments for one year or more. 

Council takes up the issue in August.