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Planning Commission puts off vote on heritage tree

Monday, October 3, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

The pecan tree at Third and Bowie will remain for at least another week, as the Planning Commission has postponed the determination of its fate once again.


The 57-foot heritage tree stands in the way of a proposed 400-foot residential skyscraper downtown, and developers are seeking a variance to cut it down. The process has spanned more than two months so far.


Last week, the commission allowed new testimony from the applicant, including architectural drawings and expert opinions. However, commissioners postponed their vote upon the request of Zoila Vega-Marchena, who said she was representing the Austin Heritage Tree Foundation. Vega sought the postponement so that she, and others opposing the tree’s removal, would have sufficient time to review the new documentation.


Earl Broussard, president of TGB Partners and a landscape architect for over 40 years, called the tree “misplaced” and presented a mitigation plan that proposed quadrupling the caliper-inches of trees downtown.


“We can put five trees of five-inch to six-inch caliper in the front, for the great streets program,” said Broussard. “We can put the remainder of the trees in the back. Initially, first day, when we plant them, we will have quadruple the caliper inch, and we will have met the shade that is being produced right now. In seven years that will have doubled, and in another seven years that will have doubled again.


“This is the mitigation that we put forward and would like you to consider.”


According to City Arborist Keith Mars, that is something the city considered when they originally wrote the ordinance. He told the commission that the newly proposed mitigation was not greater than that required by the ordinance.


“They offered 25 trees; this is what I understand. They didn’t specify a size. Three-hundred percent is the standard code recommendation for a heritage tree. For a 32-inch tree, which this one is, that would mean 96 inches of replacement trees. So I inferred from that they meant 25 4-inch trees, for an even 100 inches,” Mars told In Fact Daily.


As for the quadrupling of caliper inches, that figure seems to have included those already required by code.


“Just so everyone is aware, for the Great Streets tree requirements, the five-inch trees that are going up on Bowie Street, those are already required,” said Mars. “That is a separate requirement and can’t be counted towards mitigation.”


While the applicant, Will Marsh of Cerco Development, Inc., stressed that it is very much their preference to build on the whole site, Jason Crist, an architect with TBK, did provide alternate sketches for the site that would leave the tree intact.


He outlined the existing restraints of the property, most prominently a flood plain over two-thirds of the site and the need for a fire lane.


The second drawing, which was the more feasible of the two, covered 11 percent of the tree’s critical root zone. It also forced a 15 to 18 percent reduction in parking and a decrease of about 53,000 square feet of building space.


Developers hope the building will have 350 residential units, with 379,000 square feet total of residential and office space.


It was unclear what the reduction in parking would actually mean to the project or how either parking scenario stands in relation to city requirements.


Commissioner Donna Tiemann asked that those figures be provided at the next meeting.


While the developers agreed to return with more precise parking numbers, they made it clear that they were less concerned with city requirements than market standards.


“The only way we would proceed with the project is if it had the parking based on our consultant’s recommendations, versus a minimum,” said Marsh.


The Planning Commission will reopen the public hearing at its next meeting, when it will again hear both sides of the issue and try to determine what abiding by the Heritage Tree Ordinance means.


“Sometimes taking these trees down is the hardest situation. I understand,” said Broussard. “I think in this case, if we do the mitigation we end up with more trees, more shade, and we end up with a better project. To me, that’s what I think is good about the ordinance.”

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