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Parks board says Statesman PUD’s parkland proposal needs more work

Friday, October 1, 2021 by Amy Smith

The Parks and Recreation Board has determined that the proposed planned unit development on the Austin American-Statesman property is not a superior project as it relates to parkland.

With that determination, the board further encouraged parks staffers to continue working with the applicant to try to address the board’s list of goals for the site as well as the parks department’s current concerns.

The vote Tuesday was 6-1-1, following a good deal of debate and some wrangling over various voting scenarios, with Richard Suttle, who represents developer Endeavor Real Estate Group, and Parks Department Director Kimberly McNeeley offering suggestions for actions the board could take. Once it was evident that McNeeley’s suggested language would secure six votes, Board Member Laura Cottam Sajbel made the motion.

Cottam Sajbel is the board’s representative on the South Central Waterfront Advisory Board. The group’s vision plan for the south central shore of Lady Bird Lake was formally adopted by City Council in 2016. She had initially made a motion to reject the proposed park plan but only five members were willing to go that route.

The Statesman building sits on idyllic waterfront property along the city’s hike-and-bike trail at 305 S. Congress Ave. When the parks board received a briefing on the PUD two weeks ago, both parks planner Scott Grantham and Atha Phillips, the city’s environmental program coordinator, were unsure whether they would have sufficient information and other details nailed down by the time the board met Tuesday. Their skepticism proved correct.

At the start of the presentation Tuesday, McNeeley told the board that, while the department and the developer had made progress in their negotiations, “We’re not yet at superior, but we do have a commitment from our team and a commitment from the applicant to work through (outstanding issues).”

Grantham reiterated that sentiment. “With regards to parkland, staff finds the applicant’s proposal to be fair or OK. Not superior.”

A few of the issues still to be settled include access to the viewing area for the bats from their home under the Congress Avenue bridge, a planned detention pond below the bat habitat and parkland that is fully deeded to the city. The existing hike-and-bike trail on the property is park easement. The developer’s proposal to construct a 70-foot pier so close to the bats has also drawn concerns; the board favors reducing the landing to 30 feet.

Board members expressed frustration that they were being asked to vote on a park plan that was still being negotiated. Chair Dawn Lewis said the number of items still to be finalized “gives a sense of vagueness and uncertainty.”

Grantham told the board: “I just wanted to make sure that you had the confidence in knowing that this is something that we’re actively working on.”

“I appreciate that for an update,” Board Member Rich DePalma replied. “But you know, my kid is actively studying right now and he’ll get money if he gets an A, but I’m not giving him that money until he gets it.”

While Endeavor started working on plans for the Statesman site two years ago, board members generally felt they were being rushed to consider a plan that was not fully baked.

Suttle said that because the developer had been in the city process for two years, he applied a remedy in the code to nudge the case forward. “If you’re just going round and round and round talking about stuff, I can write a letter to the city saying, ‘I’m ready to have hearings, whether there’s a recommendation or not.’ And after two years, we decided it was time.”

The Planning Commission is expected to review the case at its Oct. 26 meeting. City Council will make the final decision sometime after that.

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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