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Environmental Commission recommends denial of city water services to entertainment complex

Friday, February 18, 2022 by Willow Higgins

Plans to develop 70 acres adjacent to the Barton Creek Habitat Preserve into a mega entertainment complex went off course last night when the Environmental Commission unanimously voted to recommend denying the request to extend water and wastewater service to the area.

The yet-to-be-constructed Violet Crown Amphitheater is centered around a venue that could host a whopping 20,000 attendees, but plans for the complex also include two residential towers, office and retail space, a driving range, two nightclubs, a pool club, a distillery, a traditional dance hall, and two large parking garages. While the denial of the service extension request will complicate things for developers and they may have to scale the project back, their plans to build are still on.

“The goal and purpose of this project is to provide the city of Austin with a venue that is unlike anywhere else in the world,” said Craig Bryan, who applied for the service extension. “Red Rocks has its feather in its cap and so does the Hollywood Bowl, and we’re trying to blend the two of them in a manner that is environmentally conscious as best we can.”

The commission’s decision to deny the request came after staff from the Watershed Protection Department recommended that they do so. The land in question is critical habitat for the golden-cheeked warbler, a Central Texas native bird on the endangered species list. If that wasn’t enough to cause a stir among environmental advocates, the land also sits on the Barton Springs Zone of the Barton Creek Watershed, the Edwards Aquifer Contributing Zone and the Drinking Water Protection Zone, and is subject to the Save Our Springs Ordinance. Numerous people attended last night’s meeting to urge the Environmental Commission to deny the request.

The developers and engineers of the Violet Crown Amphitheater told the commission that the project will comply with all city standards, including SOS standards. “Downstream it’ll be like the project didn’t even exist,” said project engineer Steve Ihnen.

The critical water quality zone and transition zones that the property sits on are already impacted by the highway adjacent to the project, Ihnen said, arguing that constructing water or wastewater lines “is not going to have any additional impact at all.” The team also argued that the endangered warbler would not be impacted by their project, according to an environmental consultant they hired.

“I want to make this a crown jewel of how to do something right, especially from an environmental standpoint in a sensitive space,” Bryan said. “We’re going to continue to give money to the environmental groups, regardless of this outcome.”

However, the developers’ defense didn’t sit well with most of the meeting participants. Eight different citizens spoke at the meeting representing interests like the Austin Zoo, Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance and Audubon Society.

“This is one of the worst projects we’ve seen in a long time. Austin does not need another Top Golf. Austin does not need another luxury residential tower and Austin certainly does not need another playground for the rich,” said Bobby Levinksi, who represented an adjacent property owner opposed to the project. “I was taken aback by the slide where he showed that they were going to put up endowments for the nonprofits here – that was one of the most egregious displays of bribery that I’ve seen.”

Bill Bunch, the executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, spoke at the meeting, explaining that he’s been working to protect that area, and the golden-cheeked warbler, since the mid-1980s to keep it “beautiful and clean and healthy.” Building this property in the middle of the habitat would put that investment to waste, he said, in addition to violating the Imagine Austin ordinance, which includes a commitment not to extend water and wastewater services in the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer watershed for “intensive development.”

“We have spent millions of dollars and so many years protecting this region of our great county and our city and it would be folly on our part to not continue that investment in our future,” Commissioner Jennifer Bristol said, in agreement with Bunch.

Arguments to protect golden-cheeked warbler habitat were both environmental and economic. The species, which is already endangered, is sensitive. Even allowing cyclists to ride on trails through their habitat previously impacted their nesting behaviors. Loud noises affect songbirds’ ability to communicate with each other; artificial light confuses their instincts and glass buildings in their flight path often cause fatal collisions.

“Birding and ecotourism generate more than $9 billion in Texas every year, and people travel from around the world to Central Texas to hear and see the golden-cheeked warbler,” said Nicole Netherton of the Travis Audubon Society. “Noticing and appreciating birds is often a gateway that inspires a lifelong commitment to conservation.”

City Council has final say on the service extension request. While a denial might impact what developers are able to fit onto the land, they do have two other options, both of which may be less environmentally sound than using Austin’s services: They can commission another provider to provide wastewater service, or they can build an on-site system themselves. Since the property already has a water line, their main task will be adding a wastewater line.

“Those last two options have a higher probability of polluting Barton Creek than the one that we’ve asked (the city) for,” said Jim Wittliff, one of the project applicants.

Project rendering from a mailed brochure that asked for neighborhood support. 

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