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City Council approves Grove PUD ‘placeholder’

Friday, October 21, 2016 by Jack Craver

City Council took an important procedural step Thursday toward approval of a major planned unit development that has fiercely divided several neighborhoods in West Austin.

Council voted to approve the Grove at Shoal Creek PUD on first reading, the first of three votes necessary to approve the final draft.

However, the favorable vote by no means signals consensus on what the final project should look like. Council members supporting the motion, including Mayor Steve Adler, made clear that they viewed the current language only as a “placeholder” that will be subject to further debate and input from the project’s developer as well as from the neighborhood groups that have been lobbying to dramatically reduce the size of the development.

The placeholder ordinance that was approved was based on the recommendation made in July by the Zoning and Platting Commission, but it also includes two amendments proposed by Council Member Leslie Pool. Pool’s amendments would significantly reduce the size of the overall project by dramatically cutting the amount of commercial space allowed on the property and decreasing the number of vehicle trips allowed to be generated by the development.

“This vote is not intended to indicate agreement with or support of these caps (on vehicle trips or commercial space),” explained Adler. “Nor does it suggest these are the only two issues on the table.”

Speaking on behalf of ARG Bull Creek Ltd., the developer seeking the 75-acre mixed-use project at the corner of Bull Creek Road and 45th Street, attorney Jeff Howard reiterated that the company saw the limits on vehicle trips and commercial space as undermining the economic feasibility of the project. Still, he pledged to continue collaborating with Council members and neighbors to achieve a compromise.

Howard framed the project sought by ARG as meeting the demands of a growing city, and again he said that the additional traffic the project would create would be completely mitigated by the roughly $9 million in infrastructure improvements the developer had committed to undertaking in the surrounding area.

Grayson Cox, vice president of the Bull Creek Road Coalition – a group that has demanded a project with significantly less commercial space and more parkland, among other things – dismissed Howard’s presentation as “doublespeak” and argued that the project as proposed would be great, but in a different location.

“I think the Grove as proposed would be amazing at another site that had better transportation connectivity,” he said.

However, Cox also announced that his group and ARG had agreed to enter into mediation in an attempt to broach a compromise.

Cox said that the mediation likely won’t be finished by Nov. 10, when Council is scheduled to take up the project next. He urged Council to delay its debate over approving the project on second reading to the following meeting, on Dec. 1. Meanwhile, Howard said he hoped Council would not delay.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo was the only Council member who spoke against approving the ordinance on first reading, saying she simply did not believe that what Council was approving met the standard of “superior” development expected of PUDs. In particular, she said, it did not provide enough affordable housing, and she was concerned by the more than $8 million in fee waivers the city would be granting to the developers.

Council Member Greg Casar, who also emphasized that he saw the ordinance as merely a “placeholder,” said that while it was important to consider the impact of fee waivers, the city also had to consider what the developer was offering in return.

Council Member Leslie Pool, who was a leader in BCRC before her election to Council, said she was “encouraged” by the inclusion of some of her amendments in the first reading. Nonetheless, she said, the current proposal still falls short of “where I and the community want it to be.” She expressed hope that mediation would produce a “better PUD” but said that she would move to postpone further discussion of the project if the two parties do not make enough progress in the coming weeks.

Council Member Sheri Gallo, in whose district the site is located – and who has generally expressed optimism about the project proposed by the developer – also encouraged negotiation between the two parties.

Tovo was joined only by Council Member Ora Houston in voting against the ordinance on first reading. Council Member Ellen Troxclair was absent, making the vote 8-2-1.

Rendering by ARG Bull Creek Ltd.

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