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Statesman PUD proposal needs improvement, Environmental Commission says

Tuesday, October 12, 2021 by Amy Smith

The planned unit development proposed for the former Austin American-Statesman property is not an environmentally superior project in the eyes of the Watershed Protection Department, but it could achieve superiority if the developer agrees to more than a dozen conditions.

Drawing on the department’s opinion, the Environmental Commission took a similar position Wednesday, voting unanimously not to recommend the project and asking staffers and the developer, Endeavor Real Estate Group, to continue negotiating unresolved issues. Endeavor agent Richard Suttle assured the commission that negotiations will continue.

The property at 305 S. Congress Ave. covers nearly 19 acres along the south shore of Lady Bird Lake and the hike-and-bike trail.

Atha Phillips, environmental program manager with Watershed, addressed each issue of disagreement. She noted, for example, the threat of erosion if the developer removes several trees from the shoreline to make way for steps leading to the lake, as well as a proposed pier that would serve as a boat dock and viewing area for watching bats on their nightly flight from underneath the Congress Avenue bridge.

“There are opportunities to save the trees with minor adjustments to the plan,” she told the commission. “The removal of these trees could destabilize the shoreline, requiring a bulkhead in this area … the trees and the existing plants that are there are holding the shoreline in place.”

All of the heritage trees on the property will be preserved or transplanted, and 77 percent of all trees on the site will be spared – an aspect of the proposal that Watershed deemed superior. The developer’s plan to provide more than 8 acres of public open space was also deemed superior.

Sticking points for Watershed include the proposal to modify the code to allow for a 70-foot pier, 40 feet longer than what is currently allowed; the plan to draw water from Lady Bird Lake for irrigation (with an OK from the Lower Colorado River Authority), contrary to Austin Water’s request that the developer use reclaimed water; and the proposed 24.5 percent impervious cover in the primary setback and critical water quality zone.

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