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Environmental Commission votes narrowly against Grove PUD

Monday, June 20, 2016 by Jack Craver

After six hours of testimony from neighbors at a previous meeting and a two-and-a-half-hour question and answer session with city staff and project developers at its most recent one, members of the city Environmental Commission remained deeply divided over a major mixed-use planned unit development on a 75-acre parcel of land between 45th Street, Bull Creek Road and Shoal Creek.

Ultimately, the 10 commissioners present voted 6-4 to recommend that City Council reject the development, known as the Grove at Shoal Creek PUD, as proposed.

Commissioners Erin Gooch, Linda Guerrero, Mary Ann Neely and Pam Thompson joined Chair Marisa Perales in support of a lengthy resolution proposed by Commissioner Peggy Maceo declaring the project unsatisfactory. That resolution said that it was not environmentally superior to what would be provided by conventional (non-PUD) development and that it did not offer more parkland than would otherwise be available through traditional zoning. Commissioners Brian Smith, Michael Moya, Richard Grayum and Andrew Creel voted against. Commissioner Hank Smith was absent.

The project would be acceptable, Maceo’s resolution stated, if neighboring properties on Idlewood Road are guaranteed not to experience runoff from the PUD during any storm less intense than a 500-year storm. Currently, the project promises to prevent runoff for up to a 100-year storm.

The resolution also demanded the square footage of the project be reduced from 2.4 million to 2 million. The developers should also commit to a three-star Austin Energy Green Building rating, rather than the minimum two-star rating required of PUDs. It also needed to study the effect that the estimated 19,000 additional car trips generated by the project would have on air quality and propose ways to reduce noise pollution.

The resolution suggested that the developers also needed to commit to preserving all trees that border the PUD and Idlewood Road and to implement measures to mitigate erosion along Shoal Creek.

Finally, the resolution stated that the parkland accompanying the project as proposed was too cut off from the surrounding neighborhood and needed an additional 1,100 feet of street frontage to make it more accessible or visible to area residents.

The resolution noted the pushback the project has received from some community groups, specifically the Bull Creek Road Coalition, a group that Council Member Leslie Pool co-founded in 2012 before she was elected to Council.

Creel found the resolution infuriating, saying that its claims, which he said were in opposition to the evidence presented by staff, would make the commission a “laughingstock” that would be disregarded at City Hall. That Maceo’s resolution was ostensibly prepared before the meeting, he said, was evidence that she didn’t take seriously the duty of listening to the evidence.

“That says to me, ‘I don’t care what happens over the course of this meeting, I don’t care what my fellow commissioners say, I don’t care what staff says, I don’t care what the applicant says,’” he stated.

Creel also argued that the resolution was misleading in its characterization of public sentiment regarding the project, which he said had generated enthusiastic support as well as vociferous opposition. Maceo’s resolution only recognized the latter, he said.

Maceo didn’t respond to the criticism herself, but Perales pushed back on it, asking commissioners to limit their comments to the substance of the motion rather than the process of its formation and saying that it was “helpful when people do their homework.”

Austin Energy staff suggested that it would be extraordinarily difficult to commit to a three-star energy rating on a development that has not yet broken ground and argued for only a two-star energy rating.

Officials from the Watershed Protection Department also expressed optimism over the future erosion of Shoal Creek. Aggressive mitigation efforts were unlikely to be necessary, said Department Chief Chuck Lesniak. Instead, he said, a “grow zone” along the creek should help re-vegetate the bank.

But Ricardo Soliz, deputy director of the Parks and Recreation Department, had concerns. The grow zone that was intended to mitigate erosion, he argued, meant that a portion of the parkland that the project was supposed to create would not be open to recreation.

That assertion was disputed by Jeff Howard, a representative for the developer, ARG Bull Creek Ltd., who said that the grow zone would eventually be re-vegetated and open to soft trails, park benches and general public access.

Soliz also urged for at least 2.5 additional acres of parkland to be added to the nearly 13 proposed, along with more street frontage along the parkland. Parks advocates argue that parks do not fulfill their public purpose if they are mostly hidden by buildings from passersby.

Howard pushed back on that as well, saying, “There’s going to be no problem knowing there’s a park there. Everyone’s going to see it.” The additional frontage requested by PARD, he said, would result in the elimination of 44 residential units from the development.

Shortly before the vote, Commissioner Richard Grayum, an appointee of Council Member Sheri Gallo, in whose district the development will be located, said the deal presented was about as good as the commission could expect.

“Let’s take what we can get and get out of here,” he said, half-joking that more demands would drive the current developers away and result in “the Chinese coming to develop this lot.”

Commissioner Linda Guerrero responded that the lengthy process was not overkill.

“As an Austinite, we have one shot for the generations to come,” she said. “That should be our goal … to look generation after generation after generation. And for them to say, ‘They stood up to this, that my quality of life was meaningful.’”

Rendering courtesy of ARG Bull Creek Ltd.

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