Despite process, builder wants to add homes

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 1, 2000

Many would agree that Austin is in the midst of a housing crunch.

Wednesday, November 01, 2000

Many would agree that Austin is in the midst of a housing crunch. The studies say that, the classifieds say that and the real estate brokers agree. Even the people who oppose the annexation of 55 acres of land west of the J.C. Hormel Nature Center believe Austin needs more housing – they just don’t want to see it near the nature center.

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Developer Rick Kahn knows Austin needs more housing – his company wouldn’t have come here if it didn’t. The majority of the homes likely will be targeted at the $37,000 to $45,000 income range. "Affordable new housing" is what he calls the homes that cost $100,000 and up. It’s a niche he says is not being filled in Austin, where new homes are being built, but at prices closer to $200,000.

However, before he and his partners, David Wellstone and two silent partners who are financing the project, can continue to work with the city, the hurdle of the referendum on the annexation must be crossed. If the voters don’t favor the annexation, the housing project can’t continue. Even if the voters pass the annexation ordinance, the process isn’t over. Annexation simply would mean the process could continue through the next development steps such as platting and negotiating a developers’ agreement with the city.

Kahn thinks he can satisfy the critics while putting homes on the land he says is Family Place Home Builders’ first, second and third choice for a new housing development.

"I believe you can vote for new housing in the community without voting against the environment," Kahn said Monday, outlining the steps Family Place Home Builders – formerly Greater Minnesota Affordable Housing – plan to take to protect the nature center.

"We agree that it shouldn’t be a high-density development there," the Family Place Home Builders president said, pointing out that the development company, if it followed the city code, could build up to 160 homes on the 55 acres. They plan to build only 127, and those only on demand.

"We started out with a much lower density because that’s what we thought was right," he said. "Then we lost seven more lots when we voluntarily agreed with the nature center task force’s recommendation for a 200-foot buffer, without quibbling. … We agree we need to do those things that guarantee no harm to the nature center."

He explains that, as it is now proposed, there will be no homes in the buffer zone, and only four homes in the 100 feet beyond that. There will be 20 homes within 600 feet – or two football fields as he describes it.

"Today there are nine existing houses within 300 feet of the nature center," he said. "I never heard anyone say those houses have caused harm to the nature center. … If the mere presence of our houses would harm the nature center, why is that not true of the existing houses in the proximity?"

For those who wonder whether the development company would be willing to build its homes elsewhere, Kahn says other sites aren’t an option.

"This is, we’re convinced, the best site by far," Kahn said. "The cost will allow us to build houses in the price range we want. It’s adjacent to an already developed neighborhood and there’s convenient access to the freeway and the heart of the city."

Neither Kahn nor Wellstone are planning any great campaign to sway voters – they’re hoping the voters will read articles in the newspapers and watch the public access debate on cable Channel 6 tonight.

"If people, after hearing all the sides of the issue, don’t think we can protect the environment and have housing, then they shouldn’t vote for the annexation," Kahn said. "A ‘yes’ vote on the annexation isn’t a vote for us, it’s a vote for the people that may live there some day. Maybe you wouldn’t want to move out by the nature center, but maybe someone you care about will end up on that property."

Prices of homes in the development won’t be fixed, Kahn explained. If a person bought a lot and asked that a $300,000 home be constructed, he said the company would do that.