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For projects green or gray, developers and conservancies seek common ground

Friday, October 25, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

While discussing the often overlooked role of local conservancies and green infrastructure nonprofits, Hill Country Conservancy CEO George Cofer told a room full of local developers that they need to cooperate and look up from their balance sheets to ensure the best parts of Austin don’t get paved out of existence.

To illustrate his point, Cofer, long one of the most prominent area conservationists, pointed to the proposed improvements to the trails along Pleasant Valley Road atop Longhorn Dam and the work that is being spearheaded by the Trail Foundation.

“It’s going to be really important in the active transportation world that we improve the Pleasant Valley Bridge. The public safety issue there is key and brings us all together because it doesn’t matter to us that it is a project of the Trail Foundation,” Cofer said. “When we collaborate, it gets back to one of those big things about the city of Austin, where regardless if we are competitors or partners we can still work together. It is critically important that we get the (transit) piece right because otherwise I don’t think this city is going to be competitive.”

Transit, green infrastructure, land use and homelessness were some of the topics discussed at the recent lunch panel held by the Real Estate Council of Austin, which examined how local developers can best partner with area nature conservancies as part of their work to close and build real estate projects.

Ivey Kaiser, executive director of Shoal Creek Conservancy, said funding and other resources from developers frequently helps to speed up or expand the improvements to area trail systems, with the nonprofit organizations lending their support to developers going through local planning approval processes.

Kaiser said those relationships tend to work best when started early in the life cycle of a project, and encouraged participation in efforts like the conservancy’s current creation of a watershed protection plan.

“In Shoal Creek watershed we have 72,000 residents there alone that have access to the trail as a thoroughfare to hike to work, other parks and neighborhoods … so there’s a huge opportunity to continue connecting the Shoal Creek trail to other assets up and down the watershed,” she said. “Working with other properties that are positioned along the creek gives us a huge opportunity to create new trail heads, signage and corridors to invite people into the trail we already have and are continuing to advocate to grow.”

Heidi Anderson, executive director of the Trail Foundation, pointed to area trails as a legitimate alternative method of transportation throughout the Austin area, with developers able to help provide more non-vehicular options for new residents. As evidence of the importance of trails, she noted recent figures showing 2.6 million visits per year to the Butler Hike and Bike Trail, with typical use tripling each year during the Austin City Limits Festival as attendees look for new ways to get to Zilker Park.

Peter Mullan, CEO of the Waterloo Greenway, said Austin’s ongoing growth has brought about a need for developers and conservationists to put aside years of antagonism and work together without wasting time and resources fighting each other.

“Clearly we’ve gotten ourselves into this dynamic in Austin, where it’s like a collision from day one, and the question is, how far apart can we stake our positions at the beginning so that we pull the negotiation in our direction?” he said. “A while back that worked to some extent, but it doesn’t result in the best solution for the public or the developer. We need the development and the capital for the city to grow, but how do we use that to shape the public realm in a positive way? The key is finding shared goals and areas of alignment whether physical or otherwise and making these projects about more than just what happens in a conference room.”

Cofer said the city’s ongoing work to update its Land Development Code presents a prime opportunity for developers and conservancies to work together since each group typically runs into conflicting zoning and planning requirements when trying to build projects, whether they are green infrastructure or profit-driven in nature.

“We (RECA) very much want your help in not making it so difficult and so expensive to put green infrastructure on the ground,” he said. “It is a big challenge to understand when Watershed (Department) says you can’t put anything in the flood plain and the Americans With Disabilities Act says if you don’t put anything in the flood plain, that’s illegal. We can all give you examples of those conflicts in the code.”

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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