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Groups sue Austin officials over plan to redevelop dairy plant site

A dairy plant in East Austin is seen through a gate.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT News
A developer has proposed replacing a dairy plant in East Austin with more than a thousand apartments, plus office, hotel and restaurant space.

Advocacy groups and a neighborhood association are suing City of Austin officials over what they allege is a plan illegally approved by council members to turn a former dairy plant into more than 1,000 new homes, offices and a hotel.

At issue is roughly 21 acres of land along the Colorado River in East Austin. It had long been home to a manufacturing plant run by Borden Dairy, which closed several of its plants throughout the country in 2022. Building rules established by the city restrict anything other than certain industrial uses of the land, such as a dairy plant.

So, when Endeavor Real Estate drafted a plan to build 1,400 apartments, 220 hotel rooms and hundreds of thousands of square feet of offices, shops and restaurants on the tract, it needed to ask permission from council members. The change would also let the developer build taller than typically allowed — up to 120 feet, or 12 stories, instead of 60 feet.

The proposal drew concerns from neighbors about the environmental impact a development like this would have on the nearby river and wildlife.

Despite opposition, council members approved the proposal last summer. But in doing so, lawyers representing the Save Our Springs Alliance, People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER) and the River Bluff Neighborhood Association claim city officials granted “special treatment” to the owners of the former dairy plant and the land it sits on.

In a lawsuit filed in Travis County District Court on Friday, lawyers claim the process by which the council granted new rules to the land’s owner is atypical and not meant to change a piece of land reserved for industrial use to a place where homes and shops can be built.

Roughly a dozen people holding signs stand in front of a microphone.
Audrey McGlinchy
/
KUT News
Roughly a dozen representatives from local neighborhood and environmental groups gathered outside the dairy plant Monday to announce a lawsuit they filed against the city over the redevelopment of the land.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs are also contesting a decision made back in the 1980s. That’s when this piece of land was removed from water restrictions set out to protect nearby bodies of water, including the lake and the river, just south of the property. Lawyers allege this was a contractual agreement entered into illegally by officials at the time.

KUT reached out to the mayor for comment and was directed to the city’s main media line. Via email, a member of the city’s law department defended the city’s process of changing these building rules.

“The challenged ordinance went through a thorough public engagement process,” said Meghan Riley, division chief for Austin’s Law Department. “We are aware of the lawsuit and will respond to the allegations through the Court process.”

On Monday morning, members of the groups suing city officials gathered on the side of Levander Loop, just outside the defunct dairy plant. They held signs that read, “Don’t Bypass Zoning Regulations” and “Contract Zoning is Illegal."

“The only way that we have been able to have the City Council follow the law is to sue them,” Daniel Llanes, a member of the River Bluff Neighborhood Association, told reporters. He referenced several recent lawsuits where homeowners, including some present at Monday’s press conference, have successfully challenged city officials over changes to building rules to allow more homes to be built.

The plaintiffs are asking that the votes to change the building rules on the dairy plant land be nullified. Richard Suttle, the lawyer who has represented the developer in City Council meetings, did not respond to a request for comment.

Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. She focuses on affordable housing solutions, renters’ rights and the battles over zoning. Got a tip? Email her at audrey@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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