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Old mine to become new town center

Monday, December 10, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

A decades-old sand and gravel mine just east of Austin city limits may be about to get a face-lift as a new Mueller-esque planned unit development (PUD).

The proposal for the 2,122-acre property includes 12,000 residential units, 2.25 million square feet of commercial space, 700 acres of parkland, and a three-acre fire station. According to Wendy Rhoades, a principal planner with the Planning and Zoning Department, the developer is also contemplating an elementary school with Del Valle ISD.

“The applicant desires to file the formal PUD application before the end of this year,” she told the Environmental Commission at its Dec. 5 meeting.

Steven Spears, a principal with GroundWork Development, told the commission, “Imagine Austin identifies this site as a town center.” The challenge with the site, he explained, is that much of the concrete that was used to build the city of Austin came from there and it doesn’t have the typical terrain for a developable site. Their aim is to convert the old mine from a pitted tract of land into “a world-class community reflecting both the natural assets of the site and the needs of the Austin-area market.”

The chief way in which the developer plans to differentiate the development from other PUDs is by emphasizing the Colorado River as the site’s crowning jewel. “We’re currently offering about three times the amount of park and open space than would be required by code,” Spears said. The parkland is intended to be a natural, ecologically sound space rather than a manicured and maintained area. “The amount of dirt a child has under their fingernails after playing … will be a mark of success,” he said, adding that the intent is to convert the parkland into public space; it will not be privately held. Part of the parkland will be dedicated to completing the hike and bike trail between Bastrop and Austin.

At the time Spears presented the project to the Environmental Commission, he underscored the fact that the PUD is currently a zoning case and so did not delve into the nitty-gritty plans for the site.

Commissioner Wendy Gordon asked the question that always seems to be the elephant in the room where new PUDs are concerned: “Sometimes PUDs come to us and are very controversial and sometimes they’re not,” she said. “What are you anticipating?”

Due in large part to the proposal’s environmentally focused approach, Spears said he has not received any pushback from the public. “We’re trying to fulfill the city’s plan,” he said. “I hope the citizenry will see it as a positive over something that could have been completely different.”

As many of the development logistics have yet to be ironed out, the commissioners offered a few suggestions to Spears to make the PUD more environmentally superior, as a PUD is required to be. Chair Linda Guerrero suggested implementing Dark Skies protections as well as limiting the number of commercial businesses permitted along the river. “You would not believe what people will design when it comes to water and recreational use and the buck,” she said.

Similarly, commissioners requested overviews of tree protection and general site restoration efforts to be presented if and when the project comes before them for approval.

The zoning request to change the tract of land to a PUD will go before Council on Dec. 13 for a vote.

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