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Council discusses transportation concerns at the Grove

Wednesday, October 5, 2016 by Jack Craver

City Council has only just dipped its toe into the debate over the Grove at Shoal Creek, the controversial mixed-use planned unit development proposed for a 75-acre lot in Central Austin.

After postponing further discussion of the case after a three-hour public hearing last month, Council members spent just under two hours on Tuesday discussing transportation concerns related to the possible project, which has polarized neighbors near the site at the corner of Bull Creek Road and 45th Street.

Tuesday’s meeting was the first of three Council work sessions that will be largely devoted to the project. Next week’s meeting will focus on the mix of housing and commercial space in the development, while the following week’s session will deal with concerns related to the project’s environmental impact as well as the amount of parkland it will include.

For Council members Sheri Gallo and Leslie Pool, whose districts include the development and border it, respectively, the coming weeks of negotiation are some of the most important of their tenures on Council.

Pool, who is opposed to the project as currently proposed, raised a number of concerns about transportation improvements that the developer, ARG Bull Creek Ltd., would be required to make.

ARG’s current plan includes adding a protected bike lane on both sides of Bull Creek Road along the edge of the development, as well as a pedestrian and bike path that runs north alongside Bull Creek and then snakes through the development to the south of 45th Street to connect bikers and walkers to Shoal Creek Boulevard.

But Pool wanted to know what could be done for bicyclists who continue on Bull Creek Road north of 45th Street. There is no designated bike lane on that segment of the road currently, and there are no plans to install one as part of the project.

“With the number of new vehicle trips that will be on these roads (because of the project), the bikes need some protections,” said Pool.

The problem, explained Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar, is that that section of the street has space reserved for parking on both sides. “To put a protected bike lane in, something would have to give,” he said.

Eliminating on-street parking, perhaps on one side of Bull Creek, is something the city could consider, suggested Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo.

However, Council Member Ora Houston, a frequent skeptic of bike infrastructure, said she didn’t like the idea of sacrificing parking for a bike lane. The city has done the same thing on streets in her district, she said, making it harder for older people and people with disabilities to find parking near their homes.

Pool also reiterated her support for lowering the maximum number of vehicle-trip counts generated by the project from 24,000 to 18,000, something that she said can be accomplished by reducing the amount of commercial development included in the project.

“That will encourage a dense, mixed-use development that will serve as a neighborhood center, not a regional center,” she said.

Gallo, meanwhile, who has been much more supportive of the project, also outlined two amendments that she plans to offer that will require the property owner to complete certain improvements to the intersection of Bull Creek Road and 45th Street in the very early stages of construction – before the project is large enough to generate 2,000 vehicle trips. Spillar responded that he expected those improvements regardless, but that Gallo’s amendment would make them a certainty.

Another Gallo amendment would require the property owner to fund a transportation demand management plan aimed at reducing vehicle trips generated by the development by 20 percent. The amendment also calls for the property owner to commit to long-term monitoring and reporting on those measures.

As Pool began to question staff about the details of a potential demand management plan, Council Member Delia Garza wondered if there could be a “more efficient” way to deal with the zoning case. It seems like a waste of time to engage in exhaustive discussion of amendments without knowing the applicant’s position on them, she said. Couldn’t Pool and Gallo sit down with ARG in private to gauge its position?

“I’m just trying to be as efficient as possible,” she said. “So is that an option?”

Tovo responded that there had already been extensive talks between the developer, Pool and Gallo.

Pool also replied that it was important to have a public dialogue on such a major development.

“It’s up to this Council to create the recipe for what that development should look like,” she said. “I appreciate the opportunity to do it publicly.”

Rendering courtesy of ARG Bull Creek Ltd.

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