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At last, City Council approves Austin Oaks PUD

Friday, April 14, 2017 by Jack Craver

After just over two hours of debate Thursday night, City Council gave its final approval for Austin Oaks, the controversial planned unit development on 31 acres of land at the corner of MoPac and Spicewood Springs Rd.

The development was approved on third reading 8-2, with only Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council Member Alison Alter in opposition. Council Member Leslie Pool was absent.

The project got a major boost after several people asked to have their names removed from a petition opposing the project. If owners representing more than 20 percent of the surrounding properties oppose a project, it needs support from a supermajority of Council to be approved, or nine votes, instead of the usual simple majority, or six votes. Just prior to the final vote it was revealed that the remaining signatures amounted to less than 16 percent of the surrounding land.

The final development that was approved did not differ dramatically from the version that was approved on second reading at the end of March.

Council made a few changes at the behest of Mayor Steve Adler, notably reducing one of the two residential buildings from five to four stories and reducing a parking garage by a half-story.

There was also debate over what type of uses should be allowed on one of the commercial spaces included in the project. Alter initially proposed requiring it to be a restaurant, but was later able to support a motion that restricted the space to several uses, including restaurant, financial services, general retail sales, convenience store, personal services or pet services.

“I prefer to see commercial office being used as opposed to being vacant,” reasoned Council Member Delia Garza, noting how hard it is for restaurants to stay in business.

While the project has faced fierce resistance from a contingent of neighbors over the past two years, few residents showed up to voice their opposition Thursday afternoon.

One person who did show up, Joyce Statz, is a board member of the Northwest Austin Civic Association, which supported the project on first reading. Due to changes made on second reading that added more residential units, among other things, the organization no longer could endorse the project, she explained.

Speaking on behalf of developer Spire Realty Group, Michael Whellan described the project as an asset in Council’s push to add much-needed housing to the urban core. By adding the housing and office space on that land, he said, Council would be reducing sprawl and adding to the city tax base.

The deal requires that at least 10.8 percent of any residential rental units be reserved for those with incomes at or below 60 percent of the median family income. The same percentage of any owner-occupied units must be reserved for those at 80 percent or less MFI.

Whellan also noted that by working with the developer on the PUD, rather than going forward with conventional zoning, the city would be getting 44 percent more open space and $1.5 million paid by the developer for a neighborhood park.

After the project was approved, Adler said he was proud of what Council had accomplished, framing the end result as a compromise that netted the city important benefits in terms of housing while respecting many of the wishes of surrounding neighbors.

Alter, who was elected in December after waging a campaign largely based on her opposition to both Austin Oaks and the Grove at Shoal Creek, which is another controversial PUD in the district, said she was proud to have represented the will of the neighborhood and urged for reforms of the PUD process.

“I hope that it’s evident to everybody that the PUD process we have is broken and needs to be changed,” she said.

Others who had voted for the project agreed.

“The original PUD ordinance was intended as a way to provide for additional community benefits and it’s just not fulfilling what the original idea was,” said Council Member Ann Kitchen.

Photo by Kara Nuzback.

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