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ZAP postpones Grove PUD debate after seven hours of testimony

Friday, June 24, 2016 by Jack Craver

After roughly seven grueling hours of testimony from neighbors on both sides of the issue, the Zoning and Platting Commission opted shortly before 3 a.m. Wednesday to postpone its decision on a controversial planned unit development proposed for a 75-acre parcel of land located between 45th Street, Bull Creek Road and Shoal Creek.

Because a number of them will be absent at the panel’s next two regularly scheduled meetings — on July 5 and July 19 — commissioners agreed to hold a special meeting on July 14 to deal specifically with the Grove at Shoal Creek, as the large mixed-use development proposed by ARG Bull Creek Ltd. is called.

The motion to postpone was unanimously approved by the bleary-eyed commissioners.

Both sides marshaled large groups of neighbors backing their cause, including dozens who did not speak but put their names down in support of or opposition to the project.

Those favoring the project included a large number of residents of the nearby retirement community, Westminster, many of whom said they had long yearned for more retail within walking distance of their homes.

Much of the debate also centered on whether the project was an affirmation or a betrayal of Imagine Austin, the comprehensive plan for the city based on many New Urbanist principles.

Ron Thrower, a representative for ARG, pointed out that city planning staff had determined that the project fulfilled a number of Imagine Austin principles by integrating development with nature, adding affordable housing stock and promoting transportation connectivity.

“Austin’s been sprawling. It’s time for Austin to stop sprawling,” he said. “This is the exact site that this project should be approved for in context with Imagine Austin.”

Critics of the project said that while Imagine Austin envisioned putting big, dense developments on the city’s transportation corridors, the proposed development amounted to an enormous increase in vehicle trips on roads that weren’t built to accommodate major traffic. In fact, many argued, their chief desire was not to block development on the now-vacant land but to facilitate a project that would better fulfill the principles of Imagine Austin, particularly affordability.

“Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, I’m not here to request that you vote against the Grove,” said Grayson Cox, vice president of the Bull Creek Road Coalition. “I’m here to request that you vote to approve the Grove, but that you approve it with some amendments.”

The 12 changes he proposed, he said, would make the project more compliant with Imagine Austin and still provide a profitable development for ARG. They included assurances for more housing units on the land and greater restrictions on the types of commercial properties allowed. These changes, Cox argued, would ensure that the housing built on the property is affordable rather than expensive single-family lots and that the retail consists of small neighborhood-oriented stores, rather than large ones like HEB, which would depend on drawing a large customer base from outside the area.

The lengthy proceeding was hardly a surprise, and commissioners likely did not expect to come to a decision on the case that night (or morning). The Environmental Commission endured nearly six hours of testimony from supporters and opponents of the project at a meeting earlier this month and similarly delayed action on the item until a later meeting.

In fact, city staff requested a postponement of the item at the very beginning of the meeting. As they were preparing a memo to describe the traffic impact analysis conducted by an engineer hired by the developer, staffers realized that there had been modifications to the TIA in March that they were unaware of, explained Jerry Rusthoven of the Planning and Zoning Department. In March, Bull Creek Road Coalition activists had raised concerns about the TIA being off-limits to city engineers.

Jeff Howard, a representative for ARG, said the changes that staff had missed were minor and consisted mostly of things that were well-known anyway.

“The neighborhood is ready to address you; the applicant is ready to address you,” he said, urging the commission to proceed with the case.

Sara Speights, who heads the Bull Creek Road Coalition, agreed. “We’re here, we’re ready to go,” she said.

Fifty-five minutes of discussion over whether to postpone ensued, with the commission finally voting narrowly to reject staff’s request and to proceed to the six-hour discussion of the actual case.

The debate among commissioners at the July 14 meeting will likely be lengthy as well. Commissioner Gabriel Rojas told the Austin Monitor that he expects the commission will ultimately recommend the project with some modifications, although what those will be remains very much in the air.

Photo by Billy Hathorn (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

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