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Council Debates trees vs. development in Central Austin

Friday, March 6, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

On Thursday, the City Council approved on second reading the opt-in opt-out vertical mixed-use decisions of the Central Austin Combined Planning Area, although neighbors remain concerned about the effect the ordinance could have on some large live oak trees at 711 W. 38th street.

Neighborhood advocate Betsy Greenberg provided pictures of the existing trees – all healthy and clearly at least 30 years old – and then showed some of the skimpy replacement trees that were put in place across the street.

The owner has promised to protect the trees, but was not willing to put it in writing. The tree ordinance gives developers the right to remove trees if they prevent developing the property, Greenberg said. So the Heritage Neighborhood hoped to add language to the ordinance that would preserve the trees near the perimeter of the property.

Attorney Michael Whellan, who represented the property’s owner, was not willing to make more concessions to the neighborhood. Already, the owner had agreed to subdivide the property into two parcels. The owner will opt-in to VMU zoning on the part of the property closest to the street, known as Tract 10A, and opt-out on the back end of the tract, or Tract 10B.

Mayor Will Wynn – typically more inclined to moderate than make speeches – was inspired by the discussion to launch into his favorite tree accommodation story, about a tree sitting in the middle of Block 21. Wynn described the block as a city-owned parking lot that added little to the character of the neighborhood.

Still, neighbors came to Council to protest the development of Block 21. They argued it was better to preserve the tree and take a pass on the $16 million that Stratus Properties eventually paid for the block, as well as $300 million added to the tax base. The project also contributes to the city’s affordable housing trust fund. “Some people tried to use that single tree to try to stop development,” said Wynn, clearly mystified by the effort.

Stratus eventually paid $80,000 to remove and relocate the tree, which included shutting down Cesar Chavez and loading the tree on a 42-wheeler truck. The tree was replanted across the street on a slope and promptly died.

“So in the middle of this most urbane setting, we have this gigantic dead tree,” said Wynn, adding that it was far better to concentrate on trees that shade sidewalks and asphalt parking lots. Those trees provide benefits, Wynn said. He made the point that the Council must strike a balance between tree protection and urban development.

Greenberg said the trees they wanted to protect were the ones closest to the street. After some discussion, Council agreed that any decisions on the trees would have to be part of a private restrictive covenant between the developer and neighborhood. Whellan declined to enter into such a covenant.

Council agreed to pass the VMU ordinance on second reading, with the understanding that Whellan and the neighborhood association would meet to hammer out some type of solution to the tree issue.

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