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Council may postpone hearing on Dell Center expansion

Thursday, August 28, 2008 by Mark Richardson

One item that is likely to spur an argument at this afternoon’s City Council meeting is the planned expansion of the Dell Jewish Community Center at 7300 Hart Lane. Neighbors have asked that the Council postpone consideration of the matter for two months. Attorney Richard Suttle, who represents the center, would prefer that the case be heard immediately but may have to settle for a Sept. 25 hearing date, since the Council will not be meeting again until then—except to approve the budget.

 

Last week, the Zoning and Platting Commission approved Planned Unit Development zoning for the center’s expansion after addressing noise and traffic concerns with a number of neighbors who live near the 40-acre complex in West Austin.

 

Officials with the center told commissioners that they plan to build several new buildings and recreation areas on the complex that were part of the original plan 10 years ago but have been delayed. Suttle said the center – or the “J” as many in the area call it – wanted to change the zoning from SF-3 to PUD because of the problems encountered with the original conditional use permit use to construct the facility.

 

“The facility will have at least 30 percent green space, and all of the building will be built to a Two-Star Green Building standard,” he said. “This facility is the home to two Jewish congregations, but its facilities are open to the general public and it is considered a major asset by most everyone in the neighborhood.”

 

A group of more than 150 supporters gathered at the meeting, wearing buttons that said “I (heart) Dell Jewish Center” and “Let my People Grow.”  Several people spoke on behalf of expanding the facility, including Jay Rubin, CEO of the center and somewhat surprisingly Clay Smith, a Muslim who is president of a local mosque.

 

“The Texas constitution is more protective of the rights of churches than even the U.S. Constitution,” he said. “It is the duty of the legislature to protect houses of worship equally, and that is why I rise in support of the Dell Community Center. I urge you to let it have its place in the fashion that they see fit.” 

 

However, it was not the religious nature of the center that drew a number of concerned neighbors to speak in opposition to the expansion, but worries over the added traffic and noise to what is mostly a single-family neighborhood. One area group, the Northwest Austin Civic Organization, said they had been in talks with the center up to the day before last week’s hearing, when officials with the center abruptly cut off communication

 

Grey Fitzgerald, a street captain with NACO for Greystone Blvd., said it is already physically difficult to get out of his driveway in the morning because of the traffic on his street.

 

“I am not against the growth of the J,” he said. “We enjoy the facility. But the streets in the area are only going to get more crowded when they add 300,000 additional square feet of facilities there. It could double or triple the amount of traffic on my street.”

 

Neighbor Jeannie Otto said she was concerned about the potential of additional  noise from the center.

 

“I have a major concern having the new athletic fields placed within a couple of hundred feet of my house,” she said. “There will no doubt be noise pollution coming from the area at a number of times, including the evenings.”

 

Keith Donahue, a member of the NACO negotiation team, said he still had concerns about where the neighborhood would go when issues arise.

 

“If we sign a restrictive covenant with the J, or there is a public covenant between them and the city, we are still concerned about where we go to enforce its provision,” he said. “At this point, we have not found a consensus. I think it is going to take a little bit of pain on both sides to find a solution.”

 

George Zapalac with the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department said the traffic in the area was a concern, but that currently, traffic studies on the intersections near the center are all getting passing grades.

 

Commission Member Keith Jackson suggested that the center should perform traffic studies at various points during the construction to assess the impact on area roadways. After some discussion, the ZAP recommended that part of the PUD agreement would include traffic assessments when construction reaches 40 percent and then at 90 of the construction. If problems are identified, the center would be required to perform necessary mitigation at that time.

 

Jackson put that in the form of a motion, and it passed 7-0.

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