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Environmental Commission fears Austin Oaks PUD will threaten too many trees

Monday, September 26, 2016 by Cate Malek

After months of contentious negotiations, the Austin Oaks planned unit development is nearing its hearing before City Council. But the Environmental Commission hopes to hash out a better tree plan before deciding whether to sign off on the project.

At its meeting on Sept. 21, the Environmental Commission voted to convene a committee with representatives of the Urban Forestry and Development Services departments to find a way to preserve more trees in the 20-acre mixed-use development. The delay was supported by six commissioners in a vote of 6-2, with commissioners Hank Smith and Richard Grayum opposed, and commissioners Michael Moya and Andrew Creel absent for the vote.

“Two hundred eighty-three trees removed from a site called Austin Oaks is really a little shocking,” said Commissioner Peggy Maceo.

The Austin Oaks PUD, located at the intersection of Spicewood Springs Road and MoPac Expressway, will include 20 acres of mixed-use development, including office, retail, restaurant, hotel and condominium space. It will also include more than 11 acres of parks and open space.

The site plan has been under review by the city since 2014 and has been delayed at least five times. One reason behind the delays has been the opposition of local residents and neighborhood associations who were concerned about the height of the buildings, the environmental impacts of the project and other issues. After ongoing negotiations, including a charrette last January, many of these issues have been addressed, if not resolved.

Michael Whellan, the attorney for the owner of the property, John Ruff, pointed out that the site plan currently includes mitigation for the trees that will be removed, and that the street-yard will be replaced with larger trees. He also emphasized that Ruff had greatly modified his plan and accepted the changes that were proposed in negotiations with nearby residents. The original plan included 17-story buildings, but it has now been modified to include a six-story building at its tallest point.

“(Ruff) went into the charrette process with an open mind and an open heart and stood up at the end and agreed that he would honor the preferred plan that the charrette design team created after getting everyone’s feedback,” said Whellan.

Even after the charrette concluded, Whellan said Ruff had made additional modifications, lowering some buildings further, reducing impervious cover and adding open space.

But some concerns with the development still remain. Tela Goodwin Mange, a resident of the Northwest Hills neighborhood, said the charrette process had been frustrating for her and her husband.

“There are a lot of people in the Northwest Hills area who were not happy with how the charrette was conducted,” she said. “A lot of people felt the outcome of the charrette was a foregone conclusion.”

Mange still believes that the project is too large for the area, will bring too much traffic to the neighborhood and will further crowd local schools. She also dislikes the fact that so many heritage trees will be cut down.

But, despite these concerns, the developers and a number of residents are ready to end negotiations and move forward with the project.

“I’m hopeful that environmental commissioners will see beyond the trees and look at the entire environmental package,” Whellan said.

This story has been corrected. There are actually 283 (not 238) trees slated to be removed from the site. However, of those, 238 are not protected by the city. This story has also been changed to clarify the developer’s current tree mitigation plan. Image courtesy of the city of Austin.

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