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City boards seek to preserve trees on former Green treatment plant site

Thursday, July 19, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

Trammel Crow officials may have breathed a sigh of relief when their deal to redevelop the Green Water Treatment Plant site was inked with the city in May after many years of negotiations. But controversy over the deal persisted Wednesday night at a specially called joint meeting of the Environmental and Urban Forestry boards, where members discussed the fate of seven heritage trees on the site.


The planned removal of these large trees has sparked public outcry.


“I think it’s shameful that we are exempting ourselves from our own ordinance,” Roy Waley, vice chair of the Austin chapter of the Sierra Club, told the board members, referring to the city’s ordinance designed to limit the removal of such significant trees. “The development community is licking their chops right now thinking how they are going to take a stick to the City of Austin because if we don’t respect our own city ordinances. Why should they?”


City Council approved the $42 million deal to sell the vacant city-owned land to Trammel Crow and its partners, giving the Dallas-based development company the go-ahead for its plan to spend an estimated $500 million to redevelop the property into a mixed-use complex of offices, living spaces and retail. Way back in June 2008, City Council authorized negotiation of the contract with Trammel Crow, but the subsequent recession slowed things considerably.


As part of the deal, City Council waived the variance portion of the Heritage Tree Ordinance. Though developers will be held to mitigation requirements defined in the ordinance, critics say that it is not enough, and does not adhere to the spirit of the ordinance, which stresses preservation above all else.


There are seven heritage trees on the site, which is conspicuous for being a large green space downtown. One tree is slated to be moved at a cost of about $54,000. The other six trees are to be destroyed. The developers have agreed to pay $58,632 to the city’s tree mitigation fund to plant trees off-site.


Last week, city staff met with Trammel Crow to discuss the trees. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, but after the meeting I was hopeful,” said City Arborist Michael Embesi. “All of the trees are on the table… meaning that all of the trees were being looked at for possible preservation.”


Fred Evans of the city’s Economic Growth and Redevelopment Office said he expected more specific designs in a couple weeks that could show how the developers may save some trees. They are looking at ways to preserve “three or more trees,” he said. Evans also told the members of the boards that two of the trees are now considered candidates for transplant.


Despite being unable to renegotiate the contract, the members of the boards asked in a lengthy resolution to have staff continue discussions about how to incorporate the trees into the site plan.


The resolution also asked that economic impact be adjusted to reflect the benefits of tree preservation and city contributions.


Board members took umbrage at an economic impact analysis that determined retention of the trees would result in significant losses to the development, including 600,000 square feet less space, 635 fewer parking spaces, 311 fewer multifamily units and 20,500 square feet of lost retail space.


Part of the motion read, “100 percent density will always be easier to design, but it is not the most desirable. To speak to maximizing taxpayer value and insuring maximum scale, heritage trees add priceless value and deserve to be counted in the equation.”


Board members also voted to urge the city to uphold the Heritage Tree Ordinance to the extent possible, despite waiving the variance process.


“It seems that the city has fallen victim to its own inflexibility in its development process. The citizens have highlighted how important heritage trees are through recent outcry and the development, passage and support of the Heritage Tree Ordinance,” read the motion.


The joint boards voted 9-0 to pass the wordy resolution. Environmental Board Member James Schissler was recused. Absent were Environmental Board members Bob Anderson and Jennifer Walker, and Urban Forestry Board members Patrick Brewer and Nicholas Classen.


City staff member Evans told the board members that the lengthy negotiation process had taught him a few things.


“In 2008, Council based the visions and goals on the values of that time. Our value structure has evolved,” Evans said. “The fact that we had such a separation of time between when we set the parameters for development and when we reached an agreement created a disconnect … that really worked against us.”

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