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ZAP delays decision on North Austin subdivision amid neighbor complaints

Tuesday, August 11, 2015 by Jack Craver

The Zoning and Platting Commission delayed action on a proposed multiuse development in North Austin after residents from the area showed up to register their disapproval of the anticipated increase in traffic.

The commission, which was missing three of its 11 members at the Tuesday meeting, moved to vote on whether to recommend the plan to City Council after over an hour of testimony from city staff, developers and neighbors of the property, which is located at 2500 South Heatherwilde Boulevard. Commissioners voted 5-3 in favor of recommending the plan, with Commissioners Jackie Goodman, Ann Denkler and Yvette Flores voting in opposition.

Despite the majority in favor, the motion failed because it didn’t garner the six votes necessary to represent a majority of the full board. Ultimately, commissioners voted 6-2 to address the case again at their next meeting, on Aug. 18. Commissioners Dustin Breithaupt and Sunil Lavani voted against rehearing the case.

Engineer Shawn Graham of Jones & Carter, the civil engineering firm for the project, said the meeting had “thrown a wrench” in the plans. He suggested that the project’s death might lead to an alternative development for the tracts, such as a big box store, that would bring even more traffic to the area.

“I think there’s a very real possibility that this project could be in jeopardy, and they (will) end up with something substantially worse,” he said.

The city’s Planning and Development Review Department recommended the project along with a number of accompanying changes to streets to connect the proposed subdivision with an existing subdivision, Spring Hill Village, to the north.

A number of Spring Hill Village residents came to the meeting to protest the project. Their major concern was that connecting their currently secluded neighborhood to a new subdivision – which would in turn be connected to a major arterial road – would bring an onslaught of traffic onto their narrow streets. A traffic impact analysis by the city predicted the development will add 10,639 car trips a day to the area.

Don Fenton, who lives on Delahunty Lane – one of the four streets targeted for extension – said the neighborhood was already too congested. He also argued that recent sidewalk additions to his street had made matters worse.

“That actually created a problem on my road because it narrowed the road,” he said. “A lot of us that live there drive big trucks, big trailers, and it actually makes it more dangerous with that sidewalk.”

Fellow area resident Elmer Goertz was more blunt about his concerns.

“I’ve got four grandchildren who come to visit me,” he said. “I want my grandchildren to someday, hopefully, live to be at least as old as I am, and if these streets are connected and they come visit, there’s probably a good chance that they may not do that.”

Some commissioners were clearly sympathetic to the concerns expressed by the residents. Goodman wondered aloud whether two of the extended streets could be reserved for bikes and pedestrians and off-limits to cars.

“If access and connectivity always has to mean a nice, navigable street for more fossil-fuel burning vehicles, I say no,” she said, provoking applause from a large group of people in the audience.

Chair Gabriel Rojas sympathized with Goodman’s hope for less dependence on cars but emphasized that barring vehicles from two of the roads would only result in more congestion on other streets in the area.

“If I could limit cars, I would,” Rojas said. “The real situation on the ground here is that all those cars will just be funneled onto an arterial street, which is more congestion, more accidents.”

Denkler and Flores suggested that they would be open to supporting the plan if it included sidewalks on the extended streets. Denkler expressed concern that children walking to the nearby Spring Hill Elementary School would be vulnerable to increased traffic.

The proposed development would fill three tracts of pasture land at the northwest corner of Wells Branch Parkway and South Heatherwilde Boulevard with residential and commercial property. The first tract, which is roughly 31 acres, would feature 142 single-family residences, while the second tract – roughly 12 acres – would serve a 288-unit apartment building. The final 0.36 acres in the development would be used for retail or other commercial activity.

By voting to postpone the case to the next meeting of the zoning commission, the panel will be able to consider the case with more members present. If just one of the three absent members votes to recommend the project, it will be able to earn the commission’s recommendation.

Picture courtesy of the city of Austin.

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