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Statesman PUD wins unanimous support from Planning Commission

Friday, February 11, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

A massive mixed-use development planned for the former Austin American-Statesman site moved one step closer to approval Tuesday, receiving the unanimous recommendation of the Planning Commission – but not before commissioners spent several hours debating changes they would like to see to the planned unit development. 

Preliminary plans for the 19-acre site at 305 S. Congress Ave. include 1,378 residential units, 1.5 million square feet of offices, a 275-room hotel, and 150,000 square feet of retail and restaurants all spread across six towers ranging from 215 to 525 feet tall.

The development is set to transform its stretch of Lady Bird Lake waterfront. Eight acres of parks and public spaces are planned, including a boardwalk, bat-watching area, reconstructed hike-and-bike trail, and spaces the development team dubs the Great Lawn and Great Steps.

Several transportation projects are also planned on or near the site, including an extended Barton Springs Road, a new street grid with wide sidewalks and bike lanes in some places, and a station for Project Connect’s Blue Line light rail. The developer plans to build 4,000 parking spaces mostly underground. 

The team behind the project includes developer Endeavor Real Estate Group, architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and Armbrust & Brown attorney Richard Suttle.

The Planning Commission already discussed the PUD in December, but commissioners wanted more time to craft a recommendation. Since then, a small working group met several times and drafted 18 amendments to the PUD. On Tuesday, the commission spent over five hours discussing and modifying the amendments, most of which ultimately passed.

Some of the discussion centered around on-site affordable housing. Commissioners recommended at least 4 percent of the units be income-restricted – in line with what the developer proposes and what the South Central Waterfront Vision Framework Plan calls for on this particular site – and that the units vary in size to accommodate families. They also recommended making the units affordable to those making 60 percent of the median family income as well as renting 4 percent of the commercial space at an affordable rate.

While commissioners and community members alike have hoped for more affordable housing, Suttle insisted that was too much to ask, mainly because the developer is already transferring more than half of the property to the city in the form of parks and roads. 

The question of who should pay for the parks and roads proved contentious. While the plan has been to fund road and park projects on the site through a tax increment reinvestment zone, commissioners voted to recommend the developer pay for these public works instead of funding them through future property tax dollars in a TIRZ. “This basically just ensures that no TIF funding, TIRZ funding or other taxpayer funding is needed,” Commissioner Grayson Cox said. 

The developer has only agreed to fund some parkland improvements, but not as many as the commission recommended. Suttle said in December that the developer is unable to fund all of the park and road improvements and that the project would not work without TIRZ funding. 

Though City Council approved a TIRZ for the South Central Waterfront area last year, there is still uncertainty about when – or even if – Council will decide to divert increased property tax revenue to fund infrastructure projects.

Park programming was another salient issue. The commission recommended the developer create a biennial programming plan over objections by some that the Parks and Recreation Department should be in charge of programming. Those in favor of developer-controlled programming wanted to avoid requiring the parks department to expend more of its already limited resources. 

Other successful amendments included making Barton Springs Road three lanes instead of the proposed four, requiring a bat education center, and limiting the reflectivity of glass on the buildings to protect birds.

The PUD will come before Council for final approval in the coming months, though no date has been set just yet. Council can adopt as many or as few of the Planning Commission’s amendments as it chooses. 

Suttle said if Council adopts all of the commission’s recommendations, the project won’t pencil. “But we’re going to try to push and pull on various things and try to accommodate everything,” he said.

Rendering courtesy of 305 South Congress PUD via the city of Austin. This story has been changed since publication to correct a typo.

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