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Northwest Austin cave prompts ZAP to postpone vote on apartment complex

Monday, August 9, 2021 by Amy Smith

With more questions than answers available to consider a proposed multifamily development at a Luby’s cafeteria in Northwest Austin, the Zoning and Platting Commission delayed a vote for two weeks on Aug. 3.

The property is located on the southwest corner of Steck and MoPac Expressway, with the project calling for a 275-unit apartment complex, with 28 units to be income-restricted at 80 percent of the median family income.

Overall, the project seemed attractive to most of the commissioners, given its high-opportunity location in District 10 and the developer’s long-term voluntary commitment to income-restricted housing.

Most of the commission’s concerns, however, centered on late-arriving backup material regarding two karst caves, known collectively as Dead Dog Cave due to the presence of dog remains that cavers came across years ago.

One cave entrance is in the right of way of the Texas Department of Transportation, between the Luby’s property and the MoPac service road, and is topped by a manhole; according to discussion at the meeting, the other cave was paved over by the Luby’s development. A handful of neighboring caves have also been paved over.

The developer’s agent, Michael Whellan, told the Monitor “to the best of our knowledge, which includes lots of interest over the years and our independent report, there are no caves under the Luby’s developed property.”

Dead Dog Cave rose to local prominence in 1978 when three teens set out to explore the cave closest to MoPac, which was under construction at the time. When they tried to climb back out, one of the boys became pinned in by a heavy rock that had fallen and was blocking the cave’s exit. Experienced cavers assisting with the rescue were largely credited for their efforts in a situation that could have ended tragically. The boys emerged safely after being trapped for four hours.

Ardent Residential, which is proposing the project, had commissioned an environmental study on the caves and submitted the findings to city environmental staffers in late May. However, the report was not included in the commission’s backup materials and never made it into the hands of Housing and Planning Department case manager Sherri Sirwaitis until hours before the ZAP meeting. Commissioners received the report at the same time, but most didn’t have time to review the study or were unaware it was in their inbox.

Sirwaitis reminded the commission that zoning cases do not typically focus on environmental issues – one of many aspects of the project to be considered during the site plan review process. Still, several commissioners said they preferred postponing the case until they could read the report and were assured there would be environmental safeguards in place before they could consider upzoning the property from a Neighborhood Commercial (LR) district to a Multifamily Residence-Highest Density district, or MF-6.

“I know we’re not supposed to be looking at environmental issues,” Chair Nadia Barrera-Ramirez said, “but if we are talking about the zoning, which is directly linked to impervious cover, and we’re concerned about how impervious cover impacts the critical environmental features that we know are probably there, then there is some kind of nexus.”

Commissioners Hank Smith and Ellen Ray saw things differently. They did not want to postpone the item and instead favored recommending the proposal to City Council with an additional recommendation that Council ask the Environmental Commission to review the case.

“This is why we’re in the mess we’re in right now,” Smith said. “We keep delaying projects and costing people money and raising the cost of housing when we keep (postponing cases) every single meeting.”

But with Whellan amenable to a two-week postponement, the commission voted 8-2 (with Smith and Ray dissenting) to consider the case at its Aug. 17 meeting.

For residents who live near the Luby’s site, traffic congestion at the Steck and MoPac intersection has been an ongoing concern and the notion of a dense development replacing Luby’s has only heightened those concerns. But like other factors associated with the case and not under ZAP’s purview, transportation mitigation won’t be considered until the site plan review process.

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here.

This story has been changed since publication to reflect the fact that Luby’s is still in operation at this location and will remain open, according to representatives of the developer. Whellan’s statement about the caves has also been added.

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