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Zoning Commission narrowly recommends Grove PUD

Monday, July 18, 2016 by Jack Craver

After 13 hours of testimony and debate over two meetings, a proposal to build a 75-acre mixed-use development on what is now a vacant tract of land between Bull Creek Road and 45th Street won an important endorsement Thursday night from the Zoning and Platting Commission.

Just before midnight, the panel voted 6-4 to recommend that the Grove at Shoal Creek go forward, but it suggested a number of changes to the recommendation that city staff had made for the project. Chair Tom Weber, along with commissioners Gabriel Rojas, Susan Harris, Sunil Lavani, Bruce Evans and Yvette Flores voted in favor, while commissioners Ann Denkler, Jolene Kiolbassa, Betsy Greenberg and Ana Aguirre voted against. Commissioner Dustin Breithaupt was absent.

While nearly everybody participating in the public debate over the project has said they are willing to accept development on the land, there is a wide divergence of opinion among neighbors as well as members of the commission over the current mix of development proposed on the site.

Rojas and Harris were effusive in their praise of the project, saying it embodied the principles of Imagine Austin, the city’s comprehensive plan, by offering dense residential and commercial development in the urban core. Such projects, both argued, were key to the city’s efforts to stop suburban sprawl.

In fact, said Harris, staff’s recommended maximum of 2.4 million square feet of development would likely be regarded in the coming decades as not providing enough density. She proposed allowing an additional 250,000 square feet of residential units to the project, a proposal that was ultimately included in the recommendation the commission adopted.

Also included in the recommendation was a proposal by Rojas to prohibit detached single-family homes on most of the property, with the aim of creating denser residential development. Other conditions attached to the recommendation include a requirement that the developer provide a trail connection between the nearby greenbelt and Jefferson Street and that it either build a bridge across Shoal Creek or use funds that would go toward the bridge to make other pedestrian or bike improvements east of the site.

Skeptics of the project, including members of the Bull Creek Road Coalition and City Council Member Leslie Pool, whose district is nearby, have said they don’t oppose more residential development on the site but that they want a reduction in office or retail space. The current recommendation would allow for up to 200,000 square feet of offices and over 100,000 square feet of retail.

Above all else, perhaps, project opponents want a greater portion of the tract to be preserved as parkland.

Kiolbassa, Denkler and Greenberg expressed deep dissatisfaction with the recommendation. They argued that the entitlements being granted to the developer were based on assumed traffic improvements that were not guaranteed to be realized in the future. Kiolbassa also said that there was little guarantee that there would be a mix of housing on the site, and Greenberg expressed concerns about a lack of flood mitigation.

Things got tense at times throughout the hearing, as Weber found himself butting heads with Denkler, Kiolbassa and Greenberg over procedure. He was visibly frustrated when Greenberg asked to bring up David Steitle, a San Antonio traffic engineer who was hired as a consultant to the Bull Creek Road Coalition, to give his thoughts on the project’s traffic implications. Weber initially denied her request, but after the commission took a short break, he allowed Greenberg to question Steitle.

In April, Weber was narrowly elected to the position of chair with the backing of Denkler, Kiolbassa, Greenberg and former Vice Chair Jackie Goodman – all of whom are typically more receptive to neighborhood objections to development – following concerns that Rojas, the former chair, had not treated neighborhood opponents of another controversial proposed planned unit development fairly.

Weber is not seen as aligned either with the neighborhood-oriented bloc on the commission or with the more density-friendly group, which includes Rojas, Harris, Evans and Lavani.

On Thursday, however, Denkler once again suggested the process had been unfair.

“Folks with a different viewpoint weren’t even able to share their potential problems with this,” she said, referring to the final motion approved by the commission.

“We’ve been designing a project like we’re developers rather than backing off and looking at it in the public’s interest,” she later added.

However, aides to Pool told the Austin Monitor that the recommendation that came out of the Zoning and Platting Commission was close to a proposal that Pool would be able to support, and they voiced optimism that Council, which is scheduled to take up the issue on Aug. 11, would be able to make the necessary changes.

Talking to the Monitor on Sunday, Rojas said that the office and retail space were key to the development as well. Mixed-use developments, where people can live, shop and work without relying on cars, he said, are the only way the city is going to achieve the “multimodal” vision of Imagine Austin.

The Grove has been at the center of heated debate for well over a year, and feelings on the issue are bound to play a major role in two of the five Council races taking place this year.

Council Member Sheri Gallo, in whose district the project is located, is being challenged by Alison Alter, who was appointed to the Parks board by Gallo but has come out strongly against the proposed project. Pool, a former co-founder of the Bull Creek Road Coalition, is getting challenged by Natalie Gauldin, an urbanist activist who co-founded Friends of the Grove, a group supporting the development.

Rendering courtesy of Grove Developer ARG Bull Creek Ltd. A complete list of Austin Monitor donors can be found here.

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