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Environmental Board approves South Shore PUD

Tuesday, March 10, 2009 by Bill McCann

The proposed South Shore District Planned Unit Development (PUD) near Lady Bird Lake in southeast Austin successfully cleared the Environmental Board last week after getting support from city staff and opposition from neighborhood leaders concerned about its effect on the community and the lake.


Houston developer, Grayco Partners, is proposing the PUD on 20 acres in the area of East Riverside Drive and South Lakeshore Boulevard. This is an area where several developers are building or planning new apartments and commercial/retail projects, and in doing so are removing aging and affordable housing. Grayco’s plans include 1,380 multi-family dwellings and commercial and retail space in six buildings ranging from 60 feet to120 feet tall.


The board voted 5-2 in favor of several exceptions requested by the developer to the city Land Development Code. Board Chair Mary Gay Maxwell and board member Mary Ann Neely dissented.


The next hurdle for the project will be at the Planning Commission, tentatively scheduled for May 12, before moving to the City Council, where opponents are hoping their arguments will have more sway.


Attorney Steve Drenner, representing Grayco, called the project a “rare opportunity to take a significant piece of property and redevelop it with a beneficial master plan.” The project, which will have a capital investment of about $270 million, will have a positive impact on the economy, environment and neighborhood, he said. 


The project will have many superior features, including a plan to improve Arena Drive, which goes through the property; the use of upgraded landscaping; construction of a water quality pond that would capture runoff from a drainage area upstream of the proposed development, and added energy efficiency in all of the buildings, according to Drenner.


But local neighborhood leaders do not see it that way. Several of them questioned the superiority of the project, arguing that it would barely meet minimum requirements in a number of areas. Superiority is an important point because to qualify as a PUD a project must be superior to one that would be built under conventional zoning and subdivision regulations.


“A superior rating does not require exceptions to environmental regulations,” said Sarah Campbell, retired urban planner and president of the South River City Citizens neighborhood association.


One of those exceptions will allow the developer to build a water quality pond in the bed of an unnamed creek on the property. The pond would capture a limited amount of runoff from the development, but would catch water drained from an estimated 117 acres upstream and remove sediment before being discharged into the lake. This would provide an alternative to capturing runoff from the development in ponds because there is no room for additional ponds on the property, according to Drenner. This alternative, which would keep far more sediment out of the lake, is an option allowed in the development code, he said.

Neighborhood representatives also raised concerns about the height of the buildings, and the cumulative impact of the South Shore PUD and other projects planned or being built in the area.


Danette Chimenti, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, called the project “a tremendous entitlement” that should at a minimum comply with the recent recommendations of the City Council-appointed Waterfront Overlay Task Force for the portion that is in the overlay. That would limit those buildings being proposed by the PUD project within the overlay to a maximum height of 60 feet.


The task force report concluded that the original 1986 waterfront ordinance was “significantly weakened” by subsequent changes, particularly a 1999 rewrite, where height limits for buildings within the Waterfront Overlay were dropped. The rewrite was supposed to have been merely to put the code into understandable language. A major task force recommendation is that height limits in the 1986 ordinance be reinstated.


Drenner told In Fact Daily that the developer had revised some plans for building height in response to recent discussions with city staff. As a result, he said, two of the buildings would be 60 feet tall, one in and one out of the Watershed Overlay; three buildings would be 90 feet tall, all within the overlay; and the 120-foot building will be located outside of the overlay boundaries. 


Several nearby projects that will have buildings 120-feet tall, including the Star Riverside condos, have received City Council approval, Drenner said.

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