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Austin Oaks PUD wins ZAP recommendation

Thursday, November 3, 2016 by Joseph Caterine

After hours of heated testimony and intense deliberation, the Zoning and Platting Commission passed a motion during its Nov. 1 meeting recommending the Austin Oaks planned unit development rezoning request with conditions.

The project has been in the works since mid-2014, although the application submitted for review Tuesday night bears little resemblance to the original conception. The PUD will rezone 13 existing parcels into 10, for a total of 31.4 acres, located on both sides of Executive Center Drive near southbound MoPac Expressway.

In September of 2015, developer Spire Realty Group agreed to fund a design charrette, which was managed by the Northwest Austin Civic Association, in an effort to collaborate with the surrounding neighborhoods. There was certainly a need to appease nearby residents, considering that, of the community members polled when the PUD was initially proposed in August of 2014, 93% opposed the plan, according to former NWACA President Joyce Statz.

The charrette process produced a “preferred plan,” which its advocates say improved on the original plan with a superior design including the addition of parkland, traffic mitigation and reduction of impervious cover. Council Member Sheri Gallo told the Austin Monitor that while she thought the 2014 plan was “absolutely inappropriate,” she supported NWACA in its commitment to the preferred plan. “I’m really supportive of the charrette process, and I know the association worked really hard on this,” she said.

Attorney Michael Whellan, representing Spire and applicant Twelve Lakes LLC, reiterated throughout the proceedings how the symmetry of infrastructure improvements and economic feasibility for the current application could be easily upset by any other conditions the commission might impose on it. “It’s a delicate balance,” he said at the meeting. “The more we pile on, the harder it is to keep that balance.”

Supporters of the plan in attendance emphasized its unprecedented nature. Andrei Lubomudrov from the Austin Board of Realtors explained how his organization typically does not weigh in on PUDs, but that it was approached by NWACA to support the design charrette. ABoR earned a $15,000 grant from its national counterpart, which helped pay for the design team’s expenses. Lubomudrov said that the charrette process was like the opposite of taking your car into a mechanic and not knowing what’s being done to it. “It was like they were working on the engine in front of everybody,” he said.

Ben Luckens, a member of NWACA who served as the volunteer project manager of the charrette, said that his goal is to ensure that the plan sticks to the charrette design as it undergoes the final review process. “We need this project,” he said.

Critics of the plan questioned NWACA’s capacity to represent all of the surrounding neighborhoods. Chris Edwards, a member of the Austin Oaks working group from the Balcones Civic Association, said that NWACA organized the charrette without properly informing the other associations involved. She also said that Jon Ruff, president of Spire, had originally said that an 890,000-square-foot project would be economically feasible. “Then why are we at 1.2 million square feet?” she asked.

In his rebuttal, Whellan countered that the originally proposed acreage would be possible only without the additions that would make it a superior development. As a PUD, the project must meet “Tier 1” requirements to qualify, and if other “Tier 2” requirements are reached, the developer earns extra entitlements.

David King, president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, gave passionate testimony against the removal of 13 heritage trees as part of the preferred plan. “The total age of these trees is over 2,500 years,” he said. “That’s over 2,500 years that they have lived on this earth and served our community.”

City arborist Keith Mars said that Spire had provided city staff with such a complete package that they were assured a level of preservation for the trees would be met. “Usually when we see PUDs, we don’t see this level of detail,” he said.

When the public hearing closed, commissioners engaged in animated discussion over several issues, to the point where the rule of order was questioned due to a dispute over procedure. Vice Chair Gabriel Rojas had made the first motion to approve recommending the PUD with staff recommendations and the addition of requiring residential zoning for the majority of lot 9. Commissioner Betsy Greenberg proposed an amendment that added the requirement that the multifamily housing construction would be triggered after 270,000 square feet of commercial had been constructed.

Her amendment passed, but after Commissioner Susan Harris attempted to make a substitute motion, Commissioner Ann Denkler questioned if substitute motions could be made. Andrew Rivera from the Planning and Zoning Department said that according to Robert’s Rules of Order, Greenberg’s amendment would have required a unanimous vote. Assistant City Attorney David Sorola then intervened, clarifying that based on his experience over the past few years serving during City Council meetings, a majority vote was sufficient to make an amendment.

After Denkler’s own substitute motion with several more conditions failed, Harris’ motion to approve recommending the PUD with conditions – including triggering multifamily housing at 500,000 square feet of commercial and increasing the applicant’s proposed pro rata for traffic mitigation by 16% – passed in a vote of 8-3, with commissioners Denkler, Jolene Kiolbassa and Dustin Breithaupt opposed.

Rendering courtesy of Spire Realty Group. This story has been changed since publication to correct a typo.

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