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Council gives preliminary approval for Central West Austin Plan

Tuesday, August 24, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Last week, Council split with neighborhood leaders on the future of University of Texas Brackenridge tract and a slice of the Austin State School property during first reading approval of the neighborhood plan for what city planner Paul Di Giuseppe called “a great example of early American suburbs.”


Although the vote on the State School was 7-0, only four members could vote on the UT property after Council Members Laura Morrison, Bill Spelman and Chris Riley recused themselves. 


Three years in the making, the Central West Austin Combined Neighborhood Plan has been the subject of significant education and debate, and involved more than 50 public meetings averaging an attendance of 40 or more people apiece.


The Central West Austin Combined Neighborhood encompasses the two distinct close-in neighborhood areas north of Lady Bird Lake and Lake Austin with proximity to both downtown and UT, principal planner Di Giuseppe told Council. MoPac bisects the planning area.


Almost half the existing structures within the neighborhood plan are single-family dwellings with few undeveloped parcels. The neighborhood breaks down into the Tarrytown and Deep Eddy neighborhoods of the West Austin Neighborhood Group and the Brykerwoods and Pemberton neighborhoods of Old West Austin.


Growth in this area of Austin has been slower than most of the city over the last two decades, Di Giuseppe told Council. Still, teardowns of existing older homes have been considered a problem among homeowner groups.


“So what’s been happening in this neighborhood is a lot of older homes, smaller homes, are being torn down or they’re being added on to pretty significantly. So the character of the neighborhood has been changing,” Di Giuseppe said.


Already home to one historic district, the area includes some of the earliest subdivisions in Austin, going back to the turn of the century for some of the oldest structures. Primarily Anglo and wealthy, the neighborhood planning area includes a dozen city parks, as well as the Brackenridge Tract and Austin State School site.


The recommendations, across three items and four hours on Council’s agenda last week, included a three-part staff report, as well as multiple attachments and recommendations on the specifics of various tracts.


Various issues were discussed, but the two big votes were how to consider the University of Texas-owned Brackenridge site and a portion of the existing Austin State School site that could be developed for future senior living. In both cases, Council chose broader language than what was preferred by stakeholders.


UT has put the Brackenridge acreage, which sits on Lake Austin, out for potential redevelopment. That puts both the Lions Golf Course and the Brackenridge Field Laboratory into potential play. The golf course has been on the chopping block multiple times in the last 30 years.


“I’m here today to talk about the Brackenridge tract one more time,” activist Mary Arnold told the Council. “It’s hard to believe it’s not 1973, it’s 2010.”


But in 2010, as in 1973, the University of Texas owns the golf course property, regardless of the fact the city has operated the historic course. As such, the golf course is state-owned land. State-owned land is not subject to city zoning, as long as it remains, unsold, in the university’s portfolio.


Hence, Council chose to pull the parcel out of the future land use map and pass the broadest language on its future intent, indicating the city would continue to work with the university on its future plans. Neighborhood leaders said they would have walked away from negotiations if they had known the ultimate recommendation to Council, a recommendation that had no real teeth.


“We have a neighborhood that works, and works reasonably well, that is now under threat by UT and the state of Texas,” said August Harris of the West Austin Neighborhood Group. “A total of 17.8 percent of the land in the plan is owned by either UT or the State of Texas, which renders the plan far less relevant.”


This plan to be approved by Council, Harris said, held the neighborhood hostage. Council members indicated little choice, given the current ownership.


Only four members of the Council said they could vote on the Brackenridge tract, carved out from the recommendations, due to conflicts of interest. Council Members Laura Morrison, Bill Spelman and Chris Riley recused themselves. At the time of the vote, Council went with broad language that it would continue negotiations.


Council Member Randi Shade, at the time she cast her vote, noted the language was “more general than some of you would like it to be.” Still, Shade and Leffingwell both affirmed the intention was to negotiate future development on the Brackenridge tract that would promote compatibility with surrounding neighborhoods and support the goals of the neighborhood plan.


Council’s motion on the Austin State School tract also was on first reading. Neighbors said they had not been informed of the intention to use the property for assisted living purposes. Agent Alice Glasco countered that neighborhood leaders had been informed regarding the direction on the property.


The problem, neighborhood activist Joyce Basciano noted, was not NIMBY. It was SNIMBY, which was “something nice in my backyard.” With the vote, local neighborhoods were being given no control over development or overdevelopment, which was the fear of the single-family neighborhood.


Council went with the broader language of a Planning Commission recommendation, which called for residential development on the property and compatibility with the surrounding neighborhood.


Council Member Sheryl Cole, who made the motion, noted the neighborhood’s recommendation did fit within the broader Planning Commission language. The motion, like that on the Brackenridge tract, was approved on first reading only.

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