After more than an hour of discussion and public comment, the Historic and Design Review Commission (HDRC) gave final approval to a townhome project in the River Road Historic District at its Wednesday meeting.

Commissioners approved the project on their second vote over the plan; the first motion to approve failed when they split the vote.

Commissioner Curtis Fish voted against the project both times, citing an incomplete design of one of the buildings that was submitted as part of the final approval application. The building, known as “Building 5” in the application, was originally a three-story structure that has since been changed to partially three-story, partially two-story. The shorter half of the design was marked by a gray box, indicating that architects would finish designing the building later.

“This particular building has been a problem we’ve had to circle back to again and again,” Fish said. “That’s why I’m not comfortable leaving it out in a partial final [approval].”

Other commissioners said they were concerned that the design of the townhomes did not fit with the character of the neighborhood, echoing residents’ protests against the development. One of the main objections from residents was the height of the townhomes. Of the six buildings planned, only one entire building is two stories. The rest have three, or a mix of two and three.

Resident John Hertz said the townhomes would stand out in the neighborhood of mostly one-story bungalows and cottages.

“This project is out of scale,” Hertz said. “It’s overly dense. Its footprint is excessive.”

Attorney James McKnight argued his client David Morin, of Austin-based developer MNO Partners, had made changes to the design even after getting conceptual approval from HDRC. At no point was there a stipulation that the height of the buildings had to be reduced to two stories, but his client changed the design for one of the buildings to be two stories after meeting with the design review commission and hearing from neighborhood residents, he said.

“We felt that was part of our compromise and part of the learning process, but with the understanding that we would get to the end,” McKnight said.

Morin said he first applied for conceptual approval of the River Road Townhomes last fall. HDRC gave conceptual approval to the project in January.

Wednesday’s final approval came with nine stipulations, including modifying bathroom windows to fit with the rest of the neighborhood homes’ aesthetic and submitting a construction management plan to protect the acequia, which was used to irrigate farmland in the Spanish colonial era. Several residents who spoke out against the project’s approval cited protecting the acequia as one of their main concerns, as well as the trees in the neighborhood.

“The plans in no way reflect saving trees,” resident Larry Clark said. “Every single tree on that site will be removed.”

Morin said the project’s current plan involves directing stormwater away from the acequia, in alignment with what River Road residents requested. He acquiesced that the development would require cutting down trees to make room for construction, but added that his company will pay into the mitigation fund that collects money as part of the city’s tree preservation efforts.

Bringing a multifamily development into the historic River Road neighborhood also gives more people a chance to live in that beautiful community, Morin said. Housing within the city is getting expensive, and while having trees is important, creating more housing opportunities is vital too, he added.

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“For infill sites, you have to kind of balance the needs,” Morin said.

Mimi Quintanilla, past president and current member of the River Road Neighborhood Association, said the neighborhood residents have to regroup and figure out what happens next.

“We will see what happens and if any of the things we were hoping would happen, including limited height, will be addressed by the developer,” she said. “We are disappointed in the vote.”

After obtaining building permits from the city, Morin said he expects construction to start next February and to be finished with the townhome project in a year. He estimated the townhomes would begin selling in the $300,000 range.

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is a general assignment reporter at the Rivard Report.