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‘Statesman’ site moves forward while staffers work on financing, governance for district

Friday, November 1, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

City staff has offered the first round of comments and requests for more information on the redevelopment plans for the 18.9 acres of waterfront property currently occupied by the Austin American-Statesman, with the site seen as the centerpiece of the long-planned South Central Waterfront District.

The master review report presented at last week’s meeting of the South Central Waterfront Advisory Board contains comments from dozens of city departments on the planned unit development plan submitted earlier this year by Endeavor Real Estate Group, which is developing the site as part of a larger district containing dozens of parcels totaling nearly 120 acres.

Endeavor and city staff are expected to spend the next several months fine-tuning the plan with multiple rounds of review, while in the background city planners are working to implement planning and financing mechanisms for the entire district that would eliminate the need for piecemeal rezoning requests for individual parcels. If those changes can be enacted within the next year – before the Statesman site’s PUD approval and rezoning is expected to reach its conclusion – those involved with guiding the district toward its long-gestating vision said they’ll have more ways to guide how important parcels are developed.

Alan Holt, a planner with the city’s Urban Design Division, had some of the most substantive comments on the Endeavor application, specifically requesting more information on requests for maximum building heights of 540 feet, compared to the 400-foot maximums presented in the vision plan for the parcel.

Another feature that drew attention is the plan to have 90 percent of all parking on the redeveloped site located underground, compared to the 25 percent that is more standard for the types of residential, hotel, office space and commercial uses that will be built there. Roughly two-thirds of the Statesman site will be committed to public use for parks, open spaces and roadways, including an extension of Barton Springs Road to the east to connect with Riverside Drive.

Calling the recent review “the first step in a 100-mile journey,” Holt said he is working intensely to assemble the reports and other materials needed to implement the regulating plan, possible tax increment financing mechanisms and governance structure that would allow the city and other stakeholders more collective influence over the area’s future development.

Earlier this year, members of the South Central Waterfront Advisory Board voiced frustration over a lack of progress in implementing those oversight and financing tools. Lacking those, each property goes through a separate rezoning approval process, with the “Snoopy PUD” nearby the first parcel in the district to begin redevelopment.

“There’s a whole series of other things the city needs to do ASAP that would negate the need for having to do PUDs, which are one-off projects, while the master plan is based on a much more district-wide approach,” Holt said. “There’s some key implementation measures that are required before using the master plan as an option for submitting for a zoning change. Because we haven’t implemented these key measures, the PUD process is the only existing process that we have for a project to seek a zoning change based on a master plan.”

Samuel Franco, chair of the advisory board, said board members weren’t too concerned at the staff comments on Endeavor’s PUD application, in part because it is expected that the PUD process can be circumvented for the district soon.

“In general we’d rather not see the PUD process go through, because we’d rather see a governance structure and funding mechanism, whether that’s (tax increment financing) or (tax increment reinvestment zone) or whatever that funding stream looks like, we’d rather have the city start putting full effort into getting all of the tools that South Central Waterfront needs in place,” he said. “That’s including the regulating plan, so developers don’t have to go through individual PUD process anymore and the district can come together as a district.”

Bryce Miller, a co-founder and managing partner for Endeavor, said the staff comments are providing a way for assorted city departments and the advisory board to “get on the same page” on what’s expected for the district as a whole, with individual parcels sharing different burdens for open space, transit infrastructure, affordable housing and other community benefits.

Miller said Endeavor would be very interested in purchasing and redeveloping other parcels contained in the district and determining how those would fit into the overall vision for the area and its emphasis on being active through most daylight and some evening hours.
For now, he said, the focus is on addressing staff comments and making clear how the Statesman property’s contribution of open space will impact what can be offered in other public benefit categories.

“We spent a year on our plan following the guiding principles of the vision plan and what was embedded in it. The Statesman property is handling over 60 percent of the open space and the major road that comes through, so the plan says let’s not burden them with everything else since other portions can’t handle the open space burden,” he said. “It’s really city staff getting up to speed with the vision plan we’ve been working with for quite some time.”

Rendering via Endeavor Real Estate Group.

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