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Thursday, April 29, 2021 by Jonathan Lee
City gains parkland along Williamson Creek, but access proves tricky
The Planning Commission tried to settle a dispute Tuesday over public park access between the Parks and Recreation Department and the developer of a South Congress multifamily project. When finding the best solution for both parties proved elusive, commissioners blamed the city’s rigid Land Development Code.
“Our code lacks the opportunity for innovation,” Commissioner James Shieh said.
The dispute boiled down to greenbelt access. City code requires that The Bend, a proposed 125-unit condo development at 4802 South Congress, dedicate land for the future Williamson Creek Greenbelt and create a public access easement.
The developer, however, requested to pay fee-in-lieu instead of dedicating the parkland due to a lack of suitable places for an easement. When an appeal of the staff decision to require the land dedication wasn’t successful at the Parks and Recreation Board, the developer appealed to the Planning Commission as a last recourse.
Agent Mike McHone said an easement along the building’s driveway – the only feasible location – won’t work. The driveway, which is also a fire lane, isn’t suitable for public access, McHone said, and the detention pond at the end of the driveway would block any trail.
Scott Grantham, a planner at PARD, said the access is important to help fulfill the “grand vision” of the Williamson Creek Greenbelt, a vision largely shaped by the community.
The parks department’s proposed design is a 5-foot sidewalk and 5-foot bike lane with two 10-foot vehicle lanes.
“That is not the Parks and Recreation Department’s ideal scenario,” Grantham told the Austin Monitor. “Ideally we would have a 15-foot-wide separated pathway that is ADA accessible and is completely separate from the driveway, fire lane, all of that.”
Crews are set to break ground on the building in June, and all the units have already sold, leaving the developer to design and build a code-compatible public access before then without changing the building. “We think it’s impossible to comply with all the ordinances,” McHone told the Monitor. “So that’s our problem.”
Grantham said that the parks department is sure the easement works, even if there are overlapping uses, such as the bike lane and fire lane.
“We would hope to not impact the building,” Grantham said. “As a former site plan reviewer, I’ve seen that site plans can be seemingly close to their final stages, and a lot of things can move on the site plan.”
Commissioners expressed frustration that a better solution couldn’t be found.
“This access sucks – I mean, it’s just a fact,” Commissioner Grayson Cox said. “We’re trying to squeeze this sidewalk and bike lane where it really doesn’t fit. It’s not going to be a desirable place to be.”
“I just hope that staff uses very reasonable flexibility on how to meet the intent of the code,” Cox said, “without making the code turn this into some really strange, mutilated monster.”
Grantham hoped a better trail might be possible if the property to the south is redeveloped. A utility easement abutting the two properties would allow the 5-foot sidewalk to be expanded.
City code does not allow PARD to build a trail along the utility easement before the property is developed without purchasing the easement.
“I think there’s this problem we have right now with our code,” Shieh said, “because we’ve all been trying to reach for some type of innovation; for instance, the easement in the neighbor’s yard. But we can’t do anything with a utility easement.”
Shieh argued that ideal locations for public access to the greenbelt should have been established already. “Right now, we’re stuck. And we have to make this decision based upon what I look at as a lack of planning for the area.”
Despite its reservations about the easement, the commission voted 13-0 to uphold the decision to require parkland dedication – and the easement.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department: The city department responsible for the city's park system, rec centers, and associated infrastructure.
City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.