Friday, March 24, 2017 by Kara Nuzback

Council clashes over changes to Austin Oaks plan

City Council members struggled to find common ground on changes to the Austin Oaks planned unit development Thursday.

Spire Realty Group’s proposed 1.19 million-square-foot mixed-use project would create a “meaningful employment center” on 31 acres away from downtown Austin, said Michael Whellan, the company’s rep. In addition to the residential, retail and office space, the plan for the North Austin property includes both affordable housing and a little over 11 acres of parkland. It has faced heated opposition for the past two and half years, and that opposition continued late into early Friday morning at City Hall.

Ultimately, a motion from Council Member Greg Casar passed on second reading in a 6-5 vote. His amendments would allow the developer to add additional stories to the development in exchange for more affordable housing units and more funds for traffic mitigation purposes, though the final vote on the project has not yet taken place.

Under Casar’s proposal, 10.8 percent of the total number of housing units would be set aside as affordable housing. That adds up to 43 on-site units – up from 20 – at 60 percent of the medium family income, half of which will be two bedroom. An additional $826,000 would be added to traffic mitigation funds. In addition, an amendment by Council Member Leslie Pool would relocate two heritage trees onsite and keep one heritage tree, named “Willie Nelson,” in place.

Casar’s motion was made as a substitute to a motion from Council Member Alison Alter, which would have increased affordable housing, though not as much as Casar’s plan, and increased funds for traffic mitigation more than Casar’s plan.

Alter argued Casar’s proposal favored the developer and asked for too little in community amenities in exchange for more space in the development. She also repeatedly questioned the numbers that Casar used to back his amendment. City staff explained the calculations had used the Domain as a basis of comparison.

Alter also clashed with fellow Council members during the hearing, particularly after her closing speech, in which she reiterated why she could not support Casar’s proposal.

“I am disappointed in my colleagues for moving forward without understanding the numbers,” said Alter, who categorized Casar’s proposal as a “giveaway” to developers.

“That’s on you,” she added.

Both Council members Delia Garza and Pio Renteria objected to the categorization.

“For someone to tell me I’m in someone’s pocket, I take that personally and I can’t support someone like that,” said Renteria.

Mayor Steve Adler and Council members Jimmy Flannigan, Garza, Renteria and Ellen Troxclair backed Casar’s motion. Council members Ora Houston, Ann Kitchen and Leslie Pool, along with Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, expressed support for Alter’s plan.

The lengthy public testimony that lasted more than two hours started off with a bang. Northwest Austin resident Idee Kwak spoke passionately against the proposed new development at length, accompanied by a video that featured an extended metaphor involving trust that sacrificed about a dozen eggs to illustrate its irreparable nature. Following the video, Kwak summoned two silent companions to her table-sized diorama of the current site. One by one, they plucked out the trees threatened by the development. Brandishing a green egg, Kwak declared, “This is a game of green eggs and sham.”

Council voted 7-4 to keep the public hearing open, but only allow abbreviated testimony. Tovo, Pool, Alter and Houston voted against.

Elizabeth Pagano and Nina Hernandez contributed to this article. A previous version of this story said the cost of the 43 affordable units would be $800,000, when in fact that figure represents the cost of just a small portion of those units. We regret the error.

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