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Camelback tract

One part of Camelback PUD isn’t controversial: A big new park

Friday, September 7, 2018 by Jack Craver

The Parks and Recreation Board couldn’t find anything bad to say about the parkland proposed as part of the Camelback PUD, a proposed mixed-use development on a 145-acre plot of land that fronts Lake Austin just west of Loop 360.

Members of the board noted nearby residents opposed to the project may have legitimate concerns, but that the board’s only task was to judge whether the proposal provided “superior” access to parkland than would normally be required by code.

On that issue alone, there wasn’t much room for debate. The planned unit development will include 26.11 acres of parkland, or 16 acres more than code would typically require for a development of that size.

The land is owned by Jonathan Coon, an entrepreneur who in 2012 sold his contact lens company, 1-800 Contacts, for $900 million. Coon wants to build a home for his family on the land alongside a boutique hotel, commercial office buildings, a restaurant overlooking the lake and a certain amount of residential development. An agent for Coon said he’s anticipating between 64 and 200 condo units, but it’s not yet clear whether those will be single-family homes, townhouses or multifamily buildings, “or a combination thereof.”

Speaking to the board, Coon said that he wants to keep a substantial portion of the tract open to the public as parkland. More than 2,200 people a week visit the bluff overlooking the lake, he said. It’s become one of the city’s most popular spots for selfies.

Board Member Dawn Lewis applauded the idea of guarding one of Austin’s scenic views and bemoaned “zoning decisions” the city had taken in the past that have left the public with less access to Lake Austin.

“I think it’s a remarkable gift,” said Board Member Rich DePalma, noting that the city wouldn’t be able to acquire a tract of land that valuable without resorting to a voter-approved bond.

Board Member Frank Ward agreed with DePalma, who he is coincidentally competing with in the race for City Council District 8.

“Until tonight, I had a lot more reservations about this project. Having seen and heard more about the parkland use … it’s something that I find particularly appealing,” said Ward.

Ward added, however, “One thing that I don’t find appealing is that we are often deliberative to the point that we hold things up in this city.”

A number of residents of the Bunny Run neighborhood showed up to oppose the PUD. Leading off was Bill Nalle, the owner of a 50-acre property that sits across the lake from the Camelback tract. Adjoining Nalle’s property is the Nalle Bunny Ranch Preserve, a 39-acre plot of land that his parents donated to the Hill Country Conservancy in 2000 and is open to the public once a month for a bird-watching tour.

Nalle said he is not opposed to a new park, but he is concerned about the “damage and detrimental effects to the lake and the lake users.”

Marisa Lipscher, president of the Shepherd Mountain Neighborhood Association, said that associations representing all but one of the surrounding neighborhoods support the PUD and described opposition from Bunny Run as being led by Nalle, whose motives she dismissed as entirely self-interested.

“He’s never had to look at anything across from his own boat docks. He wants to keep it that way and he wants your help,” she said. “Even if it means the city and our community never get this badly needed park.”

Lipscher also urged the board not to view the Nalle preserve as evidence of generosity or civic engagement from the Nalle family. The preserve is only occasionally open, she noted, and it costs $5 to access.

“This is not a park. This is a tax write-off,” she said.

Finally, Lipscher cast further doubt on Nalle’s motives by pointing out that he was not active in a recent campaign waged by her and other residents to oppose a 325-unit residential development on the nearby Champion tract.

“Where was Bill Nalle then?” she asked.

Opponents of the Champion project have an incentive to support Coon’s vision for Camelback. Coon has said he is interested in buying the Champion parcel from the current owners and pursuing a less intense development. He has suggested a senior living center. Those opposed to the current Champion project, which has yet to break ground but which City Council greenlighted earlier this year, are rooting for Coon on that front.

Board members stressed that they were only voting to endorse the parks component of the PUD and that their vote should not be interpreted as supporting other elements of the proposed project.

Board Member Randy Mann strayed off topic anyway.

“This has very little to do with parks. Almost all of this project is businesses and residential going to be owned by very wealthy people,” he said. “I just don’t see how this park area will be accessible to people in East Austin or South Austin.”

In the end, the board voted to approve the recommendation to Council that the PUD achieved “superiority” compared to current zoning in terms of parkland. Only Mann dissented.

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