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Council OKs first project under revised Barton Springs ordinance

Tuesday, August 9, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

Council last week unanimously approved the Tarlton 360 Condominium mixed-use project, the first to go forward under Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s Barton Springs redevelopment ordinance. During the hearing, however, some neighbors raised serious questions about a reversal at the Zoning and Platting Commission back in May.


Cypress Real Estate Advisers bought the shuttered 16-acre Cinemark Cinema next to Barton Creek Mall with plans for high-intensity commercial development, and then backed down to a more manageable mixed-use project of residential, retail and office, one that John Burnham, vice president of investments for Cypress, predicted could take 10 years to complete.


The clincher for Leffingwell was a new project, with upgraded standards for water quality, and concessions and mitigation fees of more than $1 million, including $400,000 to buy open space in other areas on the Barton Springs recharge zone. Those purchases, if they could be applied to the Tarlton site, would bring the impervious cover down to 20 percent.


“We finally got the tool to redevelop the area,” Leffingwell said, simply.


Neighbors in South Beecaves, however, were agitated about the project’s impact on local traffic back to the north on Walsh Tarlton, into the neighborhoods and past schools. They also suggested problems between the property owner and the neighboring bank on property lines, questioned the validity of the site plan because it was not non-compliant as it reached Council and complained that ZAP returned from a recess and reversed its decision to recommend denying the waivers for what is known as a Hill Country Roadway site plan.


ZAP also slipped in a recommendation for cutting the managed growth site plan from 10 to 5 years, a point over which ZAP had no particular jurisdiction.


Lynne Harrison-David, president of the South Beecaves Neighborhood Association, offered a passionate defense of her neighborhood’s opposition to the project and expressed grave concerns that ZAP was presented with new information, and no new rebuttal, before reversing its decision in May.


“They were denying the opposition the right to participate in consideration to the case, when it came to rescinding or amending the first vote,” Harrison-David said. “It also required five affirmative votes and they only had four votes.”


After some discussion with the applicant’s team, however, even Council members likely to have sided with the neighborhood were in attorney David Armbrust’s corner, having dismissed traffic concerns, heard justification for a 10-year extension and come to their own conclusions on the merits of the case.


Assistant City Attorney Brent Lloyd, clarifying the city code, said it wasn’t a matter of Council deciding that ZAP had failed in its duties. It was Council’s job to weigh the evidence on its own merits and reach its own conclusion as a body. Council had all the land use authority given to ZAP or Planning Commission.


“We are the do-over,” Council Member Bill Spelman told the neighborhood after 90 minutes of grueling discussion about the specific concerns raised by the neighborhood on traffic, timing and benefits. “My primary focus over the last hour or so has been the traffic issues and the waivers, as if we were in the shoes of the ZAP. Regardless of whatever administrative frailties there may have been, this was properly decided.”


During the hearing, Harrison-David alleged that Cypress had missed its deadline because the property owner failed to properly negotiate lot line issues with the bank next door. Attorney Jeff Howard rebutted that conclusion and said there had never been friction or disagreement between the two property owners and that the developer had been “diligent, competent, professional and fantastic” on all issues.


Armbrust rebutted accusations that his firm had been unresponsive to the neighborhood’s concerns, noting that all three neighborhoods had signed off on the relevant zoning changes back in 2009 and pushback from South Beecaves only came with a change in board leadership.


Neighborhood leaders questioned the quality of the traffic impact assessment, pointing out that northbound traffic on Walsh Tarlton was underestimated when asking for variances. Traffic engineer Leslie Pollock, in a back-and-forth with Spelman, noted that traffic direction had been adjusted and intersections added at the neighborhood’s request but peak hour impact remained unchanged. Walsh Tarlton, a major arterial, was far from reaching capacity. Armbrust also noted the numbers had been reviewed by a peer firm, at the request of the neighborhood.


Burnham noted the developer had made significant concessions to the neighborhood, not the least of which was taking three townhomes off a natural slope on the property, a negotiation at ZAP that won the support of Commissioner Donna Tiemann, a pro neighborhood member. The developer also had moved a high-intensity condo project that abutted the neighborhood over to Walsh Tarlton.


Cypress was asking for variances for building on slopes, for floor-to-area ratios and for height, in exchange for various concessions. Building on slopes, however, was minimized for council members like Chris Riley because all the slopes on the property, bar one, were man made.


Council Member Laura Morrison, if not colleague Council Member Kathie Tovo, appeared satisfied by the 10-year managed growth plan approved on the property. When asked, Burnham estimated a three to five year build-out each for the commercial and residential components on the project. Cypress has no particulars yet on what type of office product would be appropriate in the tightening commercial market.


Council members appeared satisfied with the explanations, with Tovo expressing some concern about how the case had been handled at ZAP.

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