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Oak Hill homeowners try to rally behind town center

Tuesday, August 31, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods (OHAN) took a message to neighborhood homeowners on Saturday: If Oak Hill wants a town center, the community needs to step it up and come together now to negotiate with developers.

 

Talk of a town center in Oak Hill is far from new. It dates back at least four years, to the neighborhood planning process, and probably further, when renewed negotiations with the Texas Department of Transportation began over how, and where, US Highway 290 might be expanded through Oak Hill.

 

Among observers, the fear, in fact, is that the idea of a town center has been around so long and talked about so much that it might seem to be a foregone conclusion that some type of large-scale, mixed-use development will go up at the intersection of US 290 and Highway 71, known as the “Y” in Oak Hill.

 

But without a firm and united voice from the community, that opportunity to create a large-scale redevelopment project may be slipping away.

 

As facilitator Sandy Baldridge, among others, warned homeowners at an interactive town hall meeting on Saturday at Oak Hill United Methodist Church, the community’s power is significantly diminished the moment any of the five developers that would join the project choose to turn dirt on something else.

 

The city’s staff and leadership are not ready to broker a compromise between a community divided over whether to create a town center or not, said Baldridge,a member of the Planning Commission. Both Council and staff have plenty of other priorities clamoring for attention. What Oak Hill needs to do is to bring one voice and a commitment to a game plan.

 

“The Council doesn’t want to play Solomon,” Baldridge told the group. “They don’t want to sit up there and judge who is right, to decide whether to cut the baby in half or in how many pieces.”

 

Most certainly, Oak Hill will have to come together, and with a common voice, if it intends to get redevelopment kick-started in the community. Oak Hill is over the Barton Springs Aquifer, and while Mayor Lee Leffingwell led the effort to rewrite the code to allow for upgraded redevelopment there, it has only been used once so far. And any effort out in Oak Hill to tear down and rebuild the existing shopping center at the “Y” is bound to draw significant opposition from the environmental community.

 

A poll of attendees at Saturday’s town hall would indicate initial strong support for negotiating a town center, almost 90 percent, with an agreement that neighborhoods would be open to development, including development concessions and the potential relaxation of regulations. Attendees emphasized that vote wasn’t a blank check; it was an agreement to consider tradeoffs.

 

A recent study projected capacity for an additional 1 million square feet of retail space, which has spawned at least one large-scale development proposal: the Westpark PUD. The group that has opposed the Westpark PUD expressed its support for OHAN’s leadership and the town center, considering the “Y” a more appropriate place for density away from area neighborhoods.

 

“OHAN represents the largest section of Oak Hill, and I hope that we will support it energetically and further increase the level of participation and awareness of OHAN in this process,” said Carol Cespedes. Cespedes and Baldridge were on opposite sides in the US 290 expansion debate. “For some, there might be a smidgen of distrust towards OHAN, but it really does represent all of us. It’s an open organization that depends on how much we’re ready to invest in it.”

 

Attendees agreed that OHAN should take the lead on the negotiations, although the group will not be the only voice in any negotiations. Baldridge fielded questions about representation and noted that only homeowner groups have a voice in OHAN’s final votes; developers and commercial property owners can only join as associate members, which would not entitle them to a vote.

 

Oak Hill is known for having a diversity of opinion, several of which were expressed when the topic of potential plans for US 290 West came up. The community split into two groups supporting different plans for the project: Consensus 290 and Fix 290.

 

Conventional wisdom is that the five developers around the “Y,” without some agreement to negotiate from the community, won’t have any incentive to work toward a mutually beneficial town center plan.

 

As Baldridge and others emphasized during discussion, this is the ideal time for negotiations. The city is completing a comprehensive plan, with its town center concept. Capital Metro, with its potential coveted mass transit connector, is in the middle of a master planning process. And even Austin Community College, one of the area’s biggest stakeholders, is working toward its own long-term plans.

 

Sean Compton of the Congress of New Urbanism and Terry Mitchell of Momark Development were also on hand to field general questions from the audience, such as what a timeline for a town center might look like and at which point neighborhood associations would have input on such issues as height and density.

 

At a break in the meeting, Baldridge said the goal is to move forward with one project and not five. The town hall meeting was called to signal to both the city and developers that Oak Hill can be united on a project.

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