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Arguments heat up over controversial Grove PUD

Friday, August 12, 2016 by Jack Craver

Plans and feelings will have to change dramatically in the coming weeks if City Council is ever to reach a consensus on the Grove at Shoal Creek, an enormous mixed-use development proposed for a 75-acre tract of land in North Central Austin.

Council’s only action on the project Thursday was unanimous: It voted to postpone discussion of the project until Sept. 22, as agreed by the developer and the neighborhood group opposed to the proposal. But comments by the two Council members most closely connected to the debate, as well as remarks afterward by both the project developer and neighborhood activists, made clear that divisions over the project remain deep.

Council Member Sheri Gallo, in whose district the proposed project is located, thanked all of the groups that have been involved in the dialogue over the planned unit development and projected optimism about the final product.

“I believe we are close, and we need to work together to bridge the gap that is still remaining,” said Gallo, who is facing a challenge in her bid for re-election this fall from Alison Alter, a critic of the project who until last week was Gallo’s appointee to the city’s Parks and Recreation Board.

Council Member Leslie Pool – whose district is next door to the affected area and who is a co-founder of the Bull Creek Road Coalition who, before her election to Council, helped found the Bull Creek Road Coalition, a group of neighborhood activists that has advocated for a smaller project – made clear she was not ready to support the project as proposed. (Pool is no longer a member of the BCRC.)

“The numbers just aren’t there yet,” said Pool, who is also facing a re-election challenge largely shaped by the development. Her opponent, Natalie Gauldin, is a strong supporter of the project.

Pool cited a recent traffic impact analysis submitted by the developer, ARG Bull Creek Ltd., that suggested an alternative plan to deal with the increased traffic generated by the project.

The original TIA is based on the developer’s acquisition of a small amount of privately owned property – located at the southeast corner of Bull Creek Road and 45th Street – that it could use to create a dedicated right-turn lane from 45th to Bull Creek. But since the company and the property owner have not been able to agree on a price for that property, the company recently submitted a new plan that does not include the dedicated right-turn lane.

Pool said her understanding of the new TIA was that “we are looking at no improvements to Bull Creek Road and 45th Street.” She also reiterated a claim frequently made by the BCRC: that the proposed project would add 19,000 car trips per day to a road that is only intended to carry about 2,000.

She hoped the six-week postponement would allow city staff to carefully review the new transportation plan, she said, adding that she was optimistic all parties could come to a compromise.

ARG representatives certainly did not view her remarks as a signal of goodwill, and they vehemently rejected her claims after the meeting.

Both common sense and city code dictate that Bull Creek Road is intended for far more than 2,000 trips a day, said Jeff Howard, an agent for the developer. Opponents of the project, he said, were referencing a section of city code that applies to residential collector streets. City staff agreed, he said, that Bull Creek Road is not should not be treated as a collector. In fact, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization lists the road as a “minor arterial.”

Garrett Martin, one of the company’s owners, called Pool’s allegation about road improvements “100 percent false and inaccurate.”

“It doesn’t promote productive dialogue,” he said. “It’s just grandstanding designed to destroy any productive conversation that might take place.”

The company is going to pay for a number of road improvements regardless of whether it gets the desired right-turn lane, ARG contends. It plans to widen Bull Creek Road by roughly 10 feet between 42nd and 45th streets, along with adding left-turn lanes at the intersection of Bull Creek and 45th. Those changes will allow the traffic flow through the intersection to increase by 78 percent, said Martin.

Pool declined a request to respond to Martin’s remarks, but she later issued a statement saying that there were “serious concerns” about the project but that she looked forward to working “to find reasonable solutions” with the developer, neighbors and Council.

Chris Allen, an architect who serves as zoning chair for the Rosewood Rosedale Neighborhood Association and has been active in the BCRC, said the road improvements promised by the developer will be “at best very challenging” and that both the developer and city staff have seemingly assured neighbors that the messy details will all be worked out during the site-plan process, which is not open to the public.

“We’re asking that the city actually review what the developer has promised to deliver on, and that hasn’t happened,” he said.

The BCRC has not opposed development on the site, he and others emphasize. The alternative they have offered would retain the same number of residences but would significantly reduce the amount of space allowed for commercial and retail uses.

“It’s been frustrating being cast as an anti-development ‘NIMBY’ by developers and others supporting the project,” said Allen. He has been active for years in encouraging development in the Rosedale area, he said, adding that he is viewed by leaders of the influential Austin Neighborhoods Council as “too pro-development.”

If Council heeds the developer’s demands, said Allen, “It will be a really clear indication that Austin has lost its way.”

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