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Final fight over Austin Oaks this week?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017 by Jo Clifton

After many months of arguments and thousands of hours of work by representatives of the city, neighborhoods and the developers, the third and final vote on the Austin Oaks planned unit development may finally happen on Thursday.

But it may not, because City Council Member Alison Alter wants to make sure that one of her proposed amendments will have enough support. Since Council Member Leslie Pool will be out of town, Alter told her colleagues at Tuesday’s work session that she might ask for a postponement. Pool is traveling all week as part of her duties as a trustee of the City of Austin Employees’ Retirement System.

Alter is seeking to undo an amendment that Council Member Greg Casar authored on second reading of the PUD ordinance. Casar’s amendment allowed developer Spire Realty Group to have an additional story in exchange for more affordable units and more traffic mitigation money on its proposed 1.19 million-square-foot mixed-use project at MoPac and Spicewood Springs Road.

The vote on Casar’s motion was 6-5, with Alter and Pool on the losing end of the vote. Mayor Steve Adler voted with Casar but at Tuesday’s work session indicated that he would consider voting for Alter’s amendment.

After the meeting, Adler said, “Greg’s amendment raised one of the residential buildings from four stories to five (stories). I’m considering an amendment to lower it back to four floors … as recommended by the community.” He acknowledged that under Alter’s proposal, the city would lose five affordable units, so instead of 46, there would be 41.

With all the talk this week about the city’s Strategic Housing Plan, people who live outside this neighborhood might see reversing that amendment and losing affordable housing as evidence of Council’s lack of commitment to its number one goal. It is not clear how much traffic mitigation money the city would lose if Council passes that amendment.

Adler told his colleagues that he would call up Austin Oaks at 2 p.m. in order to let people who came to speak about the case have their say in the afternoon. However, there is a hearing scheduled at 4 p.m. on an economic development agreement with the pharmaceutical firm Merck Sharp & Dohme. Adler said he would call up the Austin Oaks case again after the dinner break.

Alter said she is not sure when she will know whether she has the votes to pass her amendment. Council Member Delia Garza, who voted for Casar’s motion and is unlikely to change her mind on an issue that involves affordable housing, expressed concern about starting a hearing on Thursday and then postponing it.

Council Member Ann Kitchen said “it would be unfortunate to have a decisive vote” when Pool is not at the meeting.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said she would like to remove the cap on the number of two-bedroom apartments because the cap is not in line with the city’s commitment to family-friendly policies.

Alter also told her colleagues that she was opposed to allowing the developer to go through the administrative process for SMART Housing Fee Waivers because the affordable housing is part of what the developer is offering in order to make the PUD “superior,” and therefore eligible for the special zoning category.

Project owner Spire Realty Group is likely sell the portion of the project reserved for housing because the company is primarily interested in developing office buildings.

Kitchen said she would not want to prevent the developer from getting those fee waivers but suggested that the matter come to Council if it came up in the future.

As it currently stands, the PUD needs nine votes in order to win approval because of the neighborhood’s valid petition against it.

Photo by Jo Clifton.

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