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Deal for Hill Country Galleria

Wednesday, June 26, 2002 by

Village could not afford to buy land, says Mayor

The Bee Cave Board of Aldermen approved zoning, economic incentives and annexation for the Hill Country Galleria early this morning, after a three-hour public hearing. Dialogue with citizens and speeches about recognizing reality dominated the rest of the meeting, which concluded shortly before 1am today. The vote was a culmination of a five-month public review process and a much longer struggle with development issues on the 114-acre tract.

The aldermen approved the agreement piece by piece. They began by voting to suspend the lawsuit against landowner Robert Baldwin on his plans to develop the land under Chapter 245. Next, they approved a zoning change from Town Center District to Planned Development District, and a plan for the economic incentives the village was willing to concede if the 2.3-million-square-foot project were built. Then, they voted approval of the Texas Hill Country Galleria Planned Development Agreement. And finally, they agreed to annex 3.6 acres of the project that lie outside the town’s limits.

By 11 p.m. last night, the board had only gotten as far as approving the zoning change on the 111-acre property at the intersection of Highway 71 and FM 620. In a prepared statement read before the Board of Aldermen began to vote, Mayor Caroline Murphy outlined some of the misperceptions behind the village’s negotiations with developer Chris Milam, landowner Robert Baldwin and the team from Lincoln Property Development.

Only two of the two-dozen speakers favored the project. Marcy Holloway, who worked on the city’s master plan, outlined many of the concerns of residents. The Hill Country Galleria is the right project at the wrong location, she said. It would generate 50,000 vehicle trips a day and require a massive flyover lane above an environmentally sensitive area.

The mall’s design is diametrically opposed to the city’s master plan, Holloway said. The goals of that plan were to discourage an excess of commuter amenities, institute architectural controls and maintain a rural setting.

“This is a Hill Country town . . . it’s not Anywhere USA,” Holloway said.

Bill Bunch of the Save Our Springs Alliance also addressed the group. He offered the name of a lawyer, promising the city it could fight the development the same way SOS is fighting Stratus Properties. Cities can create ordinances strict enough to stop high-intensity development such as the Hill Country Galleria, Bunch said.

“Reality has arrived. There is no tooth fairy and there is no legal mechanism to halt sprawl,” said Mayor Pro Tem Zelda Auslander. I’m not happy about it. I didn’t want to grow up either.”

Here is the lure the Hill County Galleria is offering to the tiny town: between $5 million and $6 million in property taxes each year, plus an estimated $2 million in sales taxes. The entire annual budget for the Village of Bee Cave is $2.4 million.

And there are other incentives, which would give the town almost $10 million in infrastructure and amenities before the city pays a dime to the mall’s developers. Alderman Mike Murphy pointed out that the incentives would include 50 acres of mitigation to reduce impervious cover within the village’s limits, a 15,000-square-foot space for a public library and $2.5 million for the Hill Country Conservancy for additional land purchases.

That doesn’t even touch on the improvements Milam has offered to build. Those include a bypass lane already in the city’s plans for their traffic-choked stretch of Highway 71. The developer also has agreed to provide improvements to Highway 71.

In exchange, the city will rebate 60 percent of the sales tax proceeds back to the developer for up to 20 years, leaving the Village of Bee Cave the remaining 40 percent, or roughly $2 million per year. That’s based on sales of $325 per square foot—far below the $500 per square foot Barton Creek Square Mall generates, Murphy said.

The bar is set high, so high it may be impossible for the developer to meet the goal, Murphy said. Milam must secure two high-end anchors for the $25 million tax break. That break goes up to $30 million if Neiman Marcus is one of the secured tenants.

Mayor Caroline Murphy outlined in her statement many of the reasons the aldermen would likely support the incentive and the Planned Development District. The village has already lost a fight in court to roll back Baldwin’s development on another tract of land.

The huge and valuable tract would not stay undeveloped, Murphy said. Baldwin has promised to develop the land, and the village couldn’t afford to buy the land from Baldwin. The Village of Bee Cave had also secured major concessions from the developer, she said, including the scaling back of the project in density. It would dismiss the current lawsuit the village has filed against the developer. And it would provide needed infrastructure.

The project is a far better compromise than the big-box retail initially suggested on the property, the mayor said. In fact, the project meets all the city’s zoning codes, with only minor exceptions. But figuring out the impact—economic, environmental and human—of the changes approved this morning may take years.

From suit against Stratus, city

Monday votes did not reflect consensus, says president

On Tuesday, less than 24 hours after joining the Save Our Springs Alliance (SOSA) in a lawsuit against the City of Austin and Stratus Properties, the board of directors of the Save Barton Creek Association (SBCA) voted to withdraw from the suit. Jon Beal, president of the SBCA, told In Fact Daily he had done a telephone poll of the board members who were at the meeting Monday night. That group—a number of whom had departed before the surprise vote on Monday night—voted to withdraw, he said. Beal reported that the vote taken at the group’s meeting “did not represent a consensus of SBCA’s board of directors and should be reconsidered.” He and one other director voted against the motion, after trying to postpone action for a week.

SOSA and the Circle C Neighborhood Association filed suit Monday asking a state court to declare that the SOS water quality ordinance overrides claims under the state’s land development grandfather laws, known as HB 1704 and Chapter 245. In addition, SOSA’s suit claims that Ch. 245 is unconstitutional and that Circle C property owners have property rights under a 1984 Municipal Utility District agreement that would be violated by the Stratus proposal. The Circle C Homeowners Association is not involved in the suit and has come out in favor of the revised project. The City Council will have a briefing on the proposal at this morning’s worksession and a public hearing on the matter on Thursday.

Jack Goodman, one of the directors who left the meeting before the proposal that SBCA join the lawsuit, said, “It isn’t fair to ask us to vote on this,” since most of the board members had not had time to read the 19-page petition and consider the ramifications. “I have no problem supporting a lawsuit opposing 1704,” said Goodman, adding that he does not want the organization to be a party to a suit against the city. He is married to Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman.

Goodman continued, “I think it’s really poor form to show up at the SBCA unannounced and ask the board to vote on something . . . after people have gotten worn out and gone home.”

Beal was one of a number of environmentalists—including SOSA executive Director Bill Bunch—who participated in stakeholder meetings with Stratus. However, Bunch dropped out, while Beal continued to attend. Beau Armstrong, Stratus CEO, told In Fact Daily, “Jon’s environmental credentials are unsurpassed and the fact that he’s willing to do that (vote to withdraw from the suit) says a lot. This is not what these people do for a living and yet they spend countless hours on these issues. I know it’s a very hard decision for them; I know they don’t want development on Circle C, but they recognize that there are alternatives,” to litigation.

He concluded, “To force the city to spend more money and more hours on something they’ve already looked into (HB 1704) is just shameful. The city budget is already $75 million in the hole—and we are willing to comply with SOS—I don’t understand it.”

Affordable housing tops City's concerns, says group

Liveable City says it's time for a change of focus

The results of a survey performed earlier this month for the new non-profit group Liveable City show that Austinites perceive the rising cost of housing as a greater threat to their quality of life than any other factor. “Almost 75 percent of people named housing they could afford as a top community problem,” said group Chairman Bill Spelman. The other threats to Austin’s “liveability” were transportation, schools, taxes and health care.

Spelman says the survey shows that it’s time for a significant change in the public dialogue in Austin. “For the past 20 years, most of our political debate at a local level has been between advocates of a strong economy . . . and advocates of a clean environment,” Spelman said. “What the public is telling us in this survey is, ‘We care a lot about the environment. We care a lot about the economy. But that’s not broken. What we need you to do is to think about the things that are really driving us crazy.’” The long-running battle between environmentalists and developers, Spelman said, has been replaced as the top public priority by concerns over traffic and affordability. “Those are issues which are much closer to the reality of where people are right now than the old political debates between the economy and the environment.”

Organizers of the Liveable City group hope their findings will help steer public debate in the coming months. The group already has a detailed analysis of the survey findings on its website at http://www.liveablecity.org, and plans do to a more complete analysis by zip code in the coming months. Beginning in 2003, the group will evolve from a research-focused organization to one that advocates specific policies to deal with the problems highlighted by its research.

Leaders stepping down . . . Ben Heimsath, chair of the Planning Commission and Silver Garza, who has served with Heimsath on both the current commission and its previous incarnation, have said that they plan to step down when their terms expire at the end of the month. Heimsath said his architectural practice has become quite busy and he wants to spend more time with his family. Garza said he too needs to devote more time to his business . . . Other Planning Commissioners whose terms expire this month are vice chair Sterling Lands and Commissioner Cloteal Haynes, two more very busy people. Zoning and Platting Commissioners Niyanta Spelman and Jean Mather may ask to move to the Planning Commission, although Mather’s support of losing City Council candidate Kirk Mitchell over Daryl Slusher could hurt her chances of any appointment. Spelman’s ZAP appointment does not expire until next year, but Mather’s is up on Sunday. Chair Betty Baker and Commissioner Diana Castañeda are expected to be reappointed. The terms of Commissioners Angular Adams and Michael Casias both expire Sunday also. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman said Tuesday that Assistant City Attorney John Steiner has told the Council they cannot appoint new commissioners this week because the terms of the current commissioners have not yet expired. The Council will not meet again until July 10 . . . Palmer opening Saturday . . . The new Palmer Events Center will be unveiled at the Palmer Funfair on Saturday. The Funfair will include free music and children’s activities, including armadillo races, magicians, jugglers, clowns and face painting. The ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled for 11 a.m. and the Palmer Funfair is scheduled between 11:45 a.m. to 3 p.m . . . More about Stratus . . . Two of the zoning cases associated with the Stratus Properties settlement will likely have to go back before the Zoning and Platting Commission next month. Problems with the notification process on tract 107 and tract 113 mean those two cases could wind up back on the agenda for a re-hearing on July 9th . . . Parties next week . . . Round Rock will host its annual July 4th celebration at Old Settlers Park’s Lakeview Pavilion. The celebration, which will start at 7:30 p.m., will include watermelon, the Austin Symphonic Band and fireworks.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

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