Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee

 

The West Campus skyline, buildings short and tall. 

Photo Credit: Ryan Nill | Daily Texan Guest Columnist

A city council resolution brought by the Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee (CANPAC) would, if passed, negatively affect Greek and Co-operative Housing. The Committee is made up of representatives of the seven neighborhoods west and north of campus, but students have only been represented for the past two years. CANPAC works with the city to zone and define the use of properties; this work ultimately establishes the character, price, and demography of neighborhood demographics. In 2002, at the behest of a City Council tired of hearing numerous heated zoning debates,  CANPAC was formed and given two years to enact a neighborhood plan, upon which everybody could agree. The plan’s main goals were to preserve the nature of the neighborhoods and to make West Campus a vibrant, dense, diverse and affordable urban hub.

In the spring of 2004, city planners presented the plan to the Student Government Assembly and held two open forums in spring 2004. At the assembly, students expressed concern about lack of affordability, decreased parking and the aesthetics of building heights. They also expressed concern over only being allowed input in the final three months of a 24-month process.  

The historic lack of student representation, combined with unfortunate timing — the rezoning issue was brought up during the summer, when many students were gone — and the fact that student representation on CANPAC hasn’t been made permanent leave students with the sense they’ve been cut out of the loop. CANPAC Secretary Linda Team and CANPAC Co-Chair Nuria Zaragoza were unable to confirm whether the temporary nature of the student had yet been voted on, but they are currently operating as if students have a permanent position. 

The Student Government in April appointed as current CANPAC representatives Alayna Alvarez and Samuel Rhea. Student Government informs all external bodies, including CANPAC, of their new representatives upon appointment, and it is the responsibility of the CANPAC Committee to inform representatives of upcoming meetings. On the rezoning issue, Alvarez says, “Both sides have valid points, but I don’t think that this ordinance considered students’ needs enough.”

CANPAC Secretary Team says that CANPAC wants students involved in the process of neighborhood policy making and that she has also enjoyed working with both the Inter-Cooperative Council and the Inter Fraternity Council in the past. I believe, despite a rocky history, students have earned their seat at the CANPAC negotiating table. They should be sure to keep that hard-earned right to negotiate by attending tomorrow’s open meeting.

Nill is an ecology, evolution and behavior sixth-year from San Antonio. 

From left to right, 21st Street Co-op residents Joshua Sabik, Stella Cannefax and Alex Conner prepare a fish for dinner in the co-op’s kitchen Thursday afternoon. Community kitchens and provided meals can make co-op living more affordable than other housing options.

Photo Credit: Marisa Vasquez | Daily Texan Staff

Co-operative and Greek housing has always been an alternative housing choice for college students and residents in Austin, but City Council is considering a new ordinance amendment that will make it difficult for these organizations to expand or build any future co-ops in areas close to UT.

The amendment, proposed by the Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee, an organization that represents seven neighborhood associations across Austin, arises from the concern that the presence of group housing like co-ops or Greek houses will bring down the value of single family homes. The council is currently set to vote on this ordinance on Aug. 16. Joshua Sabik, the chair of an ad hoc committee of cooperative residents against the ordinance, said their first goal was to postpone the voting date.

“Right now the city council meeting would be before the school year, so that would really discourage student participation in this process,” Sabik, a Texas State student, said.

Sabik said the group is also working to build grassroots support among students and the neighborhoods. Sabik said he has tried to reach out to some Greek organizations on the issue but has not heard back.

“We believe co-ops are a good thing on the whole, not just for the members, but for the city,” Sabik said. “We are working to educate our supporters on their ability to influence this policy.”

City of Austin senior planner Robert Heil said the ordinance amendment would make group housing conditional on properties that have a base zoning designation of MF-4, a multi-family district. This means owners would have to gain approval from the planning commission before building a co-operative or a Greek home on the property. If approved, this new rule will include the Hancock neighborhood, the Heritage Hills neighborhood and the Shoal Crest neighborhood. Heil said the ordinance would also affect an area in West Campus that is north of Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, south of 34th Street and between North Lamar Boulevard and Leon Street.

Heil said requiring group housing to get a conditional use permit from the planning commission is not an easy or quick task.

“A conditional use permit is part of the zoning code,” Heil said. “Zoning changes, because of the notification requirements, are rarely done faster than three months, and if there is great public discussion then sometimes they can take longer.”

The planning commission can either deny or grant the request, with conditions attached. If the person or group of people owning the property are not happy with the ruling, they can appeal to the council, which will make the final decision.

But while Heil said the conditional permit typically takes three months to grant, Sabik said this is not always the case. He said in the late 90s, a group of people began to work to get a conditional permit to build the Sasona Co-operative in South Austin. Sabik said this permit took several years and thousands of dollars to get.

Because conditional use permits for group housing are not guaranteed, purchasing any property that has an MF-4 base zoning designation in the specified areas is a gamble. Alan Robinson, the general administrator of the College Houses organization, said this discourages building new co-ops. College Houses is an organization that manages some co-ops in West Campus.

“The ultimate effect, which may be unintended, is that it creates so much uncertainty that we won’t be able to close on a property,” Robinson said.

Sabik said cooperatives do more than offer more affordable housing close to campus.

“Co-ops also provide community, and that sort of community support is important for a healthy student,” Sabik said. “Having the support of a community tends to help people not only in their personal lives and their professional lives but also in their academic lives.”

Cooperatives are also good for economic development, Sabik said. He said some of the original funding and leadership for the grocery story Wheatsville Co-op came from cooperatives.

“One of the great things about co-ops is you have people from diverse backgrounds coming together to form a supportive community,” Sabik said. “It’s really like a family, a home away from home.”

Mike Hirsch, Hancock Neighborhood Association president and Hancock CANPAC representative, said group housing often decreases the property value of single family homes in neighborhoods.

“Non-owner occupied housing can lead to problems because the folks who rent those properties are not invested in the neighborhood, they are short-term residents oftentimes,” Hirsch said. “I know this is a concern for students, but I don’t think students understand. They’re only here for four or five years, but this is our home.”

Hirsch said he remembers times when large parties in his neighborhood have caused problems.

“I don’t want to have to clean up after vomiting students every weekend and pick up after broken glass,” Hirsch said. “I’ve been out there in the street, calling emergency services because there is a person in the street asleep with vomit all over themselves, and when the emergency services arrive, they can’t even wake the person from their sleep.”

But Robinson, the general administrator of the College Houses organization, said discounting students because they need temporary housing is not fair.

“If you look at the number of people, I would guess most of those neighborhoods are students,” Robinson said. “To try to marginalize students by saying they aren’t going to be there forever, well, you can’t say that. That’s where students live, they need to be represented.”

Hirsch said the issue of group housing near campus has been a priority and an issue for CANPAC for about five years. Hirsch did acknowledge that if the ordinance amendment passed, then purchasing a property with a conditional use permit for group housing would be an extreme gamble, but he does not think that would prevent any future cooperatives or Greek housing from being built.

“Neighborhoods change, we see neighborhoods transform and the people occupying the neighborhoods change as well,” Hirsch said. “So I don’t think this is necessarily closing the door to co-ops or fraternities or sororities. But it is going to involve more deliberate discussion.”

A MF 100 team member takes part in the 21st Street Co-op’s annual bike race in November. [Daily Texan file photo]

Photo Credit: Danielle Villasana | Daily Texan Staff

Co-op residents are fighting a new proposal that may make it difficult to build new Greek houses or co-op buildings in the area surrounding the UT campus.

Proposed by Austin City Council, the Limitation of Group Residential in MF-4 proposes to rezone the surrounding areas of the UT campus and ban any future buildings with community kitchens, which includes co-ops and Greek houses. The rezoning affects a portion of West Campus, but it mainly targets North and East campus areas, where there are single-family homes. If the resolution passes, the Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee will be in charge of rezoning.

Taos Co-op director and English senior Justus Berman, who is one of the students fighting the proposal, said he and fellow co-op residents are sending letters and petitions to the council in opposition to the proposal.

“CANPAC is trying to preserve single-family housing,” Berman said. “They don’t want the property values of their homes to be driven down by frats or that kind of thing.”

But Berman said students often live in co-ops because of their cost-effectiveness. For example, to live with a roommate at the Taos Co-op at 27th Street and Guadalupe Street is $550 a month, which includes three meals a day.

Berman said while the ordinance would not make it technically impossible to build a co-op or fraternity home, it would be extremely difficult.

“This proposal is going to create this application, and the application takes a month to go through,” Berman said. “Because of the way the property sells, you would never be able to buy the property in time.”

Berman said CANPAC is set to vote on the rezoning Aug. 17, but he is hoping they can delay the vote. 

A West Campus neighborhood association could try and install up to 400 new parking meters in the area after City Council approved an ordinance Thursday.

City Council passed a resolution that sets up a process for neighborhood associations to install parking meters and use a little more than half of the profits for infrastructure improvement and to promote alternative modes of transportation. Neighborhood organizations that wish to install meters and create a parking benefit district must hold a meeting so that community members can vote on the proposed district before it goes to the director or to council.

The council passed the resolution unanimously at yesterday’s meeting, said Matt Parkerson, executive assistant in the office of councilman and sponsor of the ordinance Chris Riley. The ordinance requires that a representative of a neighborhood organization that wishes to apply for a parking benefit district file an application with the director of the Austin Department of Transportation and then with the City Council.

Many members of the Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee, a group of representatives from neighborhoods with heavy student populations, including the University Area Partners, support installing parking meters. UAP, a group of churches, realtors and other groups with stakes in West Campus, aims to have about 400 parking meters installed in the area, said John Lawler, a member of CANPAC. While 51 percent of net funds from the meters are required to be set aside for improvements in the district, the amount of money that will be made from the meters will not make much of a dent, he said.

“The models for it are based upon typical sidewalks, while we have large pedestrian avenues and bicycle lanes,” Lawler said. “The phrase we’ve been using is ‘You’re just spitting in the ocean.’ It’s not going to make that big of a difference.”

Students can fight any proposal that UAP makes before it even reaches the council, Lawler said. Even if it can’t be stopped at the public forum, they can follow it to the council, he said.

“We have never heard or sensed that the majority would be in support of parking meters in West Campus,” he said. “We’re working off that assumption. When we held a town hall last session and brought up the subject, every student in the room was against it.”

CANPAC and the UAP believe that creating a parking benefit district in the West Campus area will make parking garage prices more competitive and contribute to improved lighting in West Campus, which will cut down on nighttime crime, said Brian Donovan, a member of CANPAC and University Area Partners. It may take years until any improvements are made, but eventually the meters would fund West Campus infrastructure including improved bike and pedestrian lanes, he said.

“There are students who have argued angrily that it’s a tax on students, but it’s a tax on drivers to make bikers and pedestrians safer,” Donovan said. “I think it’s fair enough for students to be angry, but the reality is that these improvements cost money.”