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Connectivity conundrum divides Council

Monday, November 16, 2015 by Jo Clifton

With the neighborhood, the developer and the Zoning and Platting Commission all agreeing to a plan that would add a road with access only through an emergency crash gate, City Council approved single-family small lot zoning, SF-4A, for property at 1601 Cedar Bend Drive on Thursday.

The vote was 8-3 on second reading only, with Council Members Pio Renteria, Ora Houston and Ellen Troxclair opposed.

Council had approved the zoning 10-1 with regular road access through the property on first reading on Oct. 15, but last Thursday’s vote would eliminate access to the road except for emergency vehicles, pedestrians and bicycles.

The city’s transportation staff had argued in favor of connecting Old Cedar Lane to Cearly Drive, but the developer joined with members of the neighborhood to present a valid petition opposing a regular roadway. In order to gain final approval, at least nine members of Council would have to vote to override the valid petition.

Angela Piñeyro De Hoyos, president of the River Oaks Neighborhood Association, told Council that the developer, MMK Ventures, “did not want to build the road. The staff did.” That’s why the developer took the unusual step of signing a petition against the rezoning of its own property, she said. In addition, she noted that the principal of the River Oaks Elementary School had sent a letter to the city citing her safety concerns if the road were constructed.

Piñeyro De Hoyos, newly appointed to the city’s Planning Commission, said one of the big fears the neighborhood has is becoming a cut-through path for traffic from Parmer Lane to Lamar Boulevard.

The property sits in District 7, represented by Council Member Leslie Pool, who was able to “put a traffic counter on Willow Wild Drive, which showed 1,100 vehicle trips here per day, compared to the 464 (trips) on Old Cedar,” she said. “That lower number was the basis for the city’s transportation impact analysis.”

Neighborhood advocate Jonathan Luden called construction of the road without the crash gate “a disaster in the making.” The road would endager people trying to access Walnut Creek Park as well as children walking to school, he said.

Gary Westerman, also pleading on behalf of the neighborhood, said, “The reason why the developer wants a walking and biking path is clear – 98 percent of the neighborhood wants a walking and biking path. … This is not connectivity of two neighborhoods; it is a cross-town route for motorists, from MoPac to Lamar, I-35, parallel to Parmer, and cannot increase capacity.”

But Transportation Department Assistant Director Gordon Derr told Council, “As we’ve discussed on many occasions, we think connectivity is very important. In this particular case, the alternatives are Parmer Lane or potentially a connection so someone would not have to use Parmer Lane.”

Derr noted that residential streets have a lower accident rate than roads like Parmer. “So there is an inherent safety” in neighborhood streets with slower connections, he said.

“So at this point, the River Oaks neighborhood’s options are use Parmer Lane, which is very fast; Lamar Boulevard, which is fast; or east of this location. That’s why staff has consistently said we think it’s important to have connectivity as alternatives to Parmer Lane, and we think it will make the overall system safer to have that as an alternative,” Derr concluded.

Although Council Member Delia Garza and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo both said they were troubled by the use of crash gates, they voted along with most of their colleagues to allow one.

However, Renteria, who represents District 3, rejected the idea. “When we had our first discussion here earlier this year about a development that was being built in South Austin, I warned … my colleagues that this is exactly what we’re going to be facing in the future,” he said. “We’re going to have these developments coming in, and we’re going to have people demanding gated communities. And that’s exactly where we’re going.”

Renteria continued, “My position has always been to do away with these gated communities because I feel that, you know, we’re one Austin, and I’m sure that I would like to have a gated community in my neighborhood because I’ve got all this I-35 traffic going through there. I wish that we could barricade all my streets in East Austin so we wouldn’t have to put up with all this traffic that comes through my neighborhood,” Renteria said.

Pool insisted that the new development would not in fact be a gated community. She and others argued that it was possible in the future that the road could be opened once there is “better infrastructure” to deal with neighborhood traffic.

The development must come to Council again for third reading, but because of the valid petition, it seems unlikely that the outcome will be different.

Image courtesy of Google Maps.

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