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Oak Hill reconsiders West Park PUD

Thursday, December 3, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

The West Park PUD, no stranger to the Oak Hill community, made an appearance last night as part of the Planning and Development Review Department’s commitment to begin dialogue on an area that was intentionally exempted from the neighborhood plan.


Right now, the 130-acre West Park PUD is going through the zoning process, or more precisely the re-zoning process. An approved 2000 PUD is being replaced with a denser, more ambitious 2009 plan that is intended to provide at least a portion of a town center near the intersection of US 290 and State Highway 71 at a level of development dense enough to be considered transit-oriented, a lure to bring Cap Metro’s Red Line south.


Negotiating with stakeholders, however, has not been easy for Rudy Belton’s Buffalo Equities. As attorney Dowe Gullatt told the small audience at last night’s hearing, one group of stakeholders pledged full support for the current PUD plan – broad outlines and all – as long as vertical mixed-use projects were off the table. Last night, another survey from the neighborhood contact team indicated a willingness among survey respondents to consider the VMU issue.


VMU development, something like what went on the ground at the Triangle, would be the kind of development that could attract use of the rail corridor.


“Part of our frustration is that it’s been a moving target,” Gullatt said, noting that one group likes something that another group hates. “The last meeting we had, at the Travis County precinct office, people in that room were ready to support the PUD as proposed as long as we didn’t have VMU. Then this survey says we ought to consider VMU. It creates a certain disconnect for us as we move forward.”


The town center plan, as Gullatt noted, has a lot of moving parts. For example, improvements to the “Y” at US 290 and Highway 71, once expected to be an integral part of creating the town center, could be pushed off as far as 2017.


A second factor is Austin Community College, which just purchased 38 acres adjacent to the Pinnacle campus site. Current impervious coverage regulations could allow nine acres of cover on the property. The development on that nine-acre site – right now, the proposal is simply to put a parking lot on the property while ACC considers its long-term regional plans – could have a significant impact on Oak Hill development.


Another part in motion is the fact that those in the business community are leery that a project so large – the combined facets of the project make it as large as the Hill Country Galleria – could only lead to more business failure if phased poorly. The “Y” has been a death knell for retail trying to make a go of it, and Gullatt was asked whether apartments could be put on the ground first, in order to develop the additional residential base in the area to support additional retail development.


Gullatt’s simple answer was “yes.” He also noted, in response to a question about the project’s high density from Sandy Baldridge of the Oak Hill Business and Professional Association, that the density would be phased. Baldridge noted that development in Oak Hill is a kind of chicken-and-egg scenario: Without residential development, retail can’t thrive, but residential development doesn’t necessarily spring up in areas without retail.


“Why do you think you can get some 700,000 square feet of commercial business space in this area that is not going to be big box development?” Baldridge asked.


Gullatt said that his boss does not have a master plan with a single developer in mind. In fact, the developer would prefer to work with the city to cap a total amount of construction and then determine whether commercial or residential dominates, depending on the market. The city has taken that proposal under advisement as negotiations continue with the developer.


The point of negotiation – during the zoning phase – is the place where Oak Hill has been told it will have the most leverage. Most of the site plan, once the PUD zoning is approved, will be through administrative approval. At last night’s meeting, local developer Ann Coleman said she’d prefer a more community-friendly plan, one that is designed as a collective town center rather than a group of bubbles on a page like a bunch of retail users along a major commercial corridor.


Oak Hill is not looking for a Hill Country Galleria, Coleman told Gullatt, a point that was echoed by Becki Halpin of the neighborhood contact team when it came time to talk about the community’s expectations for a town center. Oak Hill wants more neighborhood-friendly civic space and green space than the Domain, Halpin said.


Gullatt acknowledged those concerns, saying the developer is continuing to work with consultants, trying to arrange and rearrange development in a way that could both meet the developer’s goals and provide the necessary TOD density. If VMU were a possibility, development could be compressed to 25 percent impervious cover on the site, but with no option concerning community benefits for mitigating influences.


At 25 percent impervious cover, the PUD would have to make no community concessions. If it chooses 40 percent impervious coverage on the 130 acres, that would mean more concessions to, and other types of community benefits for, Oak Hill.


Oak Hill leader Dave Richardson, one of the biggest proponents of the town center, noted that much of the discussion boils down to the community getting educated on what it would take to reach its goals. Oak Hill needs to be better versed on issues such as density and what it takes to support TOD in order to offer good, or even consistent, advice among stakeholders, Richardson said.


“I don’t know that Cap Metro has done, or anybody has done, a decent job of educating our community on appropriate parameters,” Richardson said. “What does it take to generate the amount of business and the kind of density needed? These are really complicated issues. We’re lay people, and we’re trying to help you make decisions when we’re uninformed ourselves. We need to become informed, and that’s going to be the real challenge to this community.”


The town center plan continues to move through the process, including a potential hearing before the Environmental Board. City staff, led by planner Jerry Rusthoven, promised an additional appearance in the community. Gullatt added that the developer is willing to meet with all neighborhood groups to continue dialogue.

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