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Neighbors, ARG Bull Creek still fighting over Grove

Wednesday, September 7, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Neighborhoods surrounding the proposed Grove at Shoal Creek – a huge, mixed-use planned unit development slated for the area around 45th Street and Shoal Creek – have worked mightily to prevent it, even accusing some city staff members of hijacking the process in favor of the developer.

One of the biggest points of contention at present is whether a traffic impact analysis provided by ARG Bull Creek is accurate and whether the city is correct in withholding some proprietary files used in the analysis, called Synchro files, from public disclosure.

Last week, Chris Allen, a member of the Bull Creek Road Coalition, sent a letter to City Council accusing one of the city’s engineers of working to block his request for the Synchro files and saying that his group’s engineer had found numerous flaws in part of ARG’s analysis. He also reiterated his request for the Synchro files.

City Manager Marc Ott has directed a review of work done on the project by the city’s transportation reviewers, and a city spokesman said a memo addressing concerns about city staff’s handling of the project should be completed by the end of this week.

On Tuesday, Jeff Howard, an attorney representing ARG Bull Creek, sent a letter to the mayor and Council defending his client, its engineer and the work they have done on the analysis.

“I’ve been doing land development cases in Austin for 23 years, and I’ve been doing zoning cases, PUDs, for not quite 20 years. … This is incredibly unusual,” Howard told the Austin Monitor on Tuesday. “What’s unusual is the level of detail, scrutiny, conservatism that has gone into the TIA review,” he added. “I’ve never seen a case where city staff changed the scope of a TIA review after six months. I mean, expanding the scope of the TIA, expanding the data, asking for a lot more complex data and more analysis, a more detailed review.”

Howard wrote that he had offered to provide the Synchro files to the Bull Creek Road Coalition “on reasonable conditions” but that the BCRC declined. Those conditions included that the group share information from its engineer, “that if the exchanged information were disputed by either side that we would work together before we attack each other” and that the coalition “not use withholding the files as a basis for postponement if the files were provided.”

According to Allen, the BCRC interpreted the second condition as “a blanket gag order” and “totally unacceptable.” It is hard to imagine how the BCRC could enforce such an agreement with so many members, anyway.

Howard also pointed out that the city had received a letter opinion from Attorney General Ken Paxton that allows a third party, such as the PUD’s engineer, to object to disclosure of information that would give advantage to a competitor or bidder. In this case, the engineer, R-K Traffic Engineering, objected to release of the information, and therefore the city was allowed to withhold the Synchro files.

Allen told the Monitor that the information is public information and should be provided by the city. He also argued that one of the city’s engineers, Andrew Linseisen, division manager of land-use review, should not have been helping an assistant city attorney prepare arguments to persuade the Attorney General’s Office to allow the city to withhold the documents.

Howard also argues that the data and analysis reflected in the electronic files are already publicly available. “The data to support the TIA has not been withheld, only the underlying digital files that are proprietary professional work product have been withheld,” he said. He also said that the BCRC could re-create the Synchro files by spending a few hours on them. Allen disputes that notion, saying that information is not sufficient and that it would cost the group perhaps $80,000 up to $30,000 to re-create the files.

In last week’s email, Allen stated that their traffic engineer had found that “5 of the 15 land uses are entered incorrectly, resulting in 33 errors in a single table.”

Howard says there are no errors: “This is an objectively false statement. Of the 33 alleged errors, none are actually errors.” He provided a memo from the developer’s traffic engineer concerning the correct trip generation formula. “This conclusion is confirmed by the review conducted by all levels for city transportation review staff. In fact … the trip generation numbers used by the city staff are extremely conservative and possibly significantly overestimated,” he said.

Council is set to hear the case on Sept. 22.

This story has been changed to clarify that not all neighborhoods have worked against the PUD, which does have some support. The first sentence originally referred to “the neighborhoods” but now just reads “neighborhoods” in acknowledgement of this nuance. Rendering courtesy of ARG Bull Creek.

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