Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

Official newspaper of The University of Texas at Austin

The Daily Texan

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October 4, 2022

Autism-centric development deserved to be nixed

Chelsea Purgahn

The Austin Zoning and Planning Commission recently voted against a zoning change that would allow the creation of both a housing development and a residential treatment center for adults with autism in West Austin.

“(The decision) signals that the commission with its new membership is not going to require wealthy home owners west of MoPac to endure the burden of growth that the rest of us will have to,” said Gabriel Rojas, the outgoing vice chair of the zoning and planning commission.

While Rojas’ argument about the general attitude of West Austin towards urban growth is straight on the mark, not every project promising urbanization should be blindly approved.

This decision is a new precedent for reigning in over-optimistic developers and preserving already developed neighborhoods in Austin.

Jim Duncan, one of the new members on the commission and retired city planner, says his vote against the proposed plan was motivated by the greediness of the proposal. “(This project’s developer), Milestone, was trying to get more than they should on this property,” Duncan said.

The commission’s ruling changed the zoning to only allow development of 30,000 sq. foot lots, when Milestone originally asked for 10,000 sq. foot lots. While the ruling was on the dramatic end of the spectrum, Duncan’s overall assessment of the original proposal is accurate.

The city municipal code supports a long-standing view that the Hill Country should not be heavily urbanized for environmental and aesthetic reasons. “River Place (the surrounding neighborhood) is almost 95 percent developed. You don’t change the rules in the fourth quarter,” said Duncan.

While Milestone claims its project would help provide single family housing in Austin, houses in the development would be between $700,000 and $900,000. That price tag is higher than the average for the neighborhood, and certainly unattainable to the average family in need of housing.

The other half of the proposal was the Autism Center. Proponents say smaller lots were necessary to generate a certain amount of profit to fund the endowment for the Center. While this may be true, and the plans are lovely on the surface, when you look closer, there are problems.

The family slated to run the Center, of Polly and Johnathan Tommey, has been very involved in the anti-vaxxer movement. None of the Tommeys list any kind of medical education or behavioral health certifications as qualifications, yet they plan to run a home with more than 40 adults with autism.

“Whether a concept will be successful or not will be mired in the details,” said Ann Hart, a board member and parent-support volunteer with the Autism Society of Texas for over a decade. Hart also brought up concerns about cost. Residential treatment is expensive. Even with an endowment, it’s unclear how much families would have to pay for the Center.

The decision to reign in Milestone’s plan was necessary because it considered the bigger picture. The ideals behind the project are worthy, but tying a charity cause to them does not justify giving the developer whatever they want.
“We’ve let the growth industry run the show, and we’ve left a lot of people behind,” said Duncan.

Protecting established Austin neighborhoods, even the rich ones, could be a step towards changing that trajectory. Hopefully, this preservation-oriented trend continues when it comes to neighborhoods in less affluent parts of Austin.

MacLean is an advertising and geography sophomore from Austin. She is a senior columnist. Follow her on Twitter @maclean_josie.

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Autism-centric development deserved to be nixed