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Developers and neighbors come together on Austin Oaks charrette

Friday, November 6, 2015 by Jack Craver

Negotiations between neighbors and developers over the proposed Austin Oaks Planned Unit Development are going swimmingly, according to what representatives involved in the process told the Zoning and Platting Commission on Tuesday.

After agreeing in September to engage with neighbors through a charrette, an intensive planning process in which area stakeholders seek to find consensus for a development, Spire Realty Group has met twice with neighborhood groups and is in the process of setting up the charrette, which will take place between Jan. 24 and Jan. 29.

Michael Whellan, an attorney with Graves Dougherty Hearon & Moody, represented Spire, the Dallas-based firm seeking to build a massive mixed-use development at the corner of Spicewood Springs Road and North MoPac Expressway. He told the commission that the company was engaging in productive dialogue with neighbors over what the development should look like.

There was no sign of contention over the issue at the meeting. No neighbors spoke against the project or the process, as many did at the September meeting. At that meeting, commissioners had also voiced frustrations with the project’s numerous delays. Rather than voting to formally re-examine the project at a later date, they voted to postpone the project indefinitely but to require those involved in the charrette to periodically brief the commission on their discussions.

Since the September meeting, the developer and neighbors have met twice and set up four committees – composed of members of different neighborhood groups and company representatives – to deliberate on different aspects of the project and process. In addition to a steering committee that oversees the overall process, there is a community involvement committee devoted to identifying and getting feedback from area stakeholders, a staff interface committee that will brief the Zoning and Platting Commission on the process and a logistics committee in charge of organizing the time and place of the future meetings.

Ben Luckens, a member of the Northwest Austin Civic Association, was selected to be the charrette project manager. A planning consultant by trade, Luckens has experience with charrettes. In a brief appearance before the commission, Luckens reiterated Whellan’s message, contesting nothing the company’s representative had said about the process.

“I think Ben has the credibility with the community but also knows the process really well,” Commission Chair Gabriel Rojas told the Austin Monitor.

Neighbors have already voted to hire Farr Associates, a Chicago-based design firm, to facilitate the charrettes. They voted for TBG Partners, an Austin architecture firm, to be in charge of the design planning. Whellen said that Spire had agreed to pay for the “estimated cost” of hiring the firms, while the neighborhood groups will try to find money to pay for the two firms’ other expenses. Whellen said that “everybody recognized that everybody had to have some skin in the game.”

“The developer did not offer any suggestions about who might serve in these capacities, recognizing that the strength of this process comes from the full involvement of the community,” he said.

The developer is going into the process with an open mind, said Whellen. He held up the blank side of a piece of paper, telling the commission, “This is what we’re starting with.”

He added, “There is a real opportunity here to demonstrate to the entire city that this process can yield a sound result that has decision-maker support, and that we can all be proud of.”

To that end, Whellen explained, the Zoning and Platting Commission members could play a key role in ensuring that the process includes all necessary stakeholders. He asked that commissioners push city staff to be involved in the charrette by helping the design team determine what a feasible project would look like.

Commissioner Ann Denkler asked that those involved in the charrette come before the commission once more before it takes place. In particular, she said it was important for the commission to make sure that the process includes all relevant stakeholders, including neighborhood groups that are currently uninvolved but may have an interest in the development.

Rojas emphasized the same point in a later interview with the Monitor. “As long as everyone agrees on the process to begin with, nobody can really call foul afterwards,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a good thing for Austin Oaks.”

Map courtesy of the city of Austin. 

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