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Statesman PUD wins initial approval

Monday, April 11, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

One of the most anticipated redevelopment projects in Austin’s history has moved one step closer to approval. 

City Council Thursday unanimously approved Planned Unit Development (PUD) zoning on the first of three readings for the former Austin-American Statesman site, whose 19 acres of offices and parking currently sit vacant next to Lady Bird Lake. 

“This is an exciting conversation just because this tract may very well be the most prominent tract in the city,” Mayor Steve Adler said.

Plans include six towers ranging from 215 to 525 feet tall with a total of 1,378 residential units, 1.5 million square feet of office space, 275 hotel rooms and 150,000 square feet of retail and restaurants. Over half of the site will be turned into public space. Developer Endeavor Real Estate Group has committed to paying for a reconstructed hike-and-bike trail, a lawn, a bat-watching area, plazas and rain gardens. Other features, including a boardwalk over the lake, are also planned, though who will pay for them is still up for debate. 

The development will also change the way people get around the area. Endeavor has committed to make room for a Blue Line light rail station on-site as well as build – though not pay for – an extended street grid that will take Barton Springs Road across Congress Avenue. The project will include 4,000 parking stalls, nearly all of them underground. 

The project’s team, in addition to Endeavor, includes architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Armbrust & Brown attorney Richard Suttle.

While the approval of the rezoning seems inevitable, much work remains to finalize key details; namely, on-site affordable housing and funding for park and road improvements. To kick off the conversation, Council voted 10-0, with Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison off the dais, to approve on first reading recommendations by the Planning Commission as well as other changes requested by Council Member Kathie Tovo.

The Planning Commission unanimously recommended Council approve the PUD in February after making 24 recommendations ranging from tweaks to major changes. The most consequential change includes making the developer pay for all parkland and road improvements – a request that would make the project financially infeasible, according to Suttle.

Tovo’s most significant request is for 10 percent of the units to be affordable instead of 4 percent as proposed by the developer. The 4 percent figure is in line with both the Planning Commission’s recommendation and a vision plan for the area approved by Council in 2016.

While Suttle has insisted that anything is still on the table, he repeatedly emphasized that too many requirements would sink the project. “It has to be financially sound,” he said. “That’s the key.” It was for this reason that some Council members said they would not support all of the Planning Commission’s amendments.

The development team expects the city to share infrastructure costs through a tax increment reinvestment zone for the South Central Waterfront, a 118-acre area that includes the Statesman site. The TIRZ, which Council laid the groundwork for last year but did not finalize, will redirect future property tax revenue to parks, roads and affordable housing in the area.

Council Member Chito Vela suggested allowing taller buildings so that the developer can provide more community benefits. Suttle said more entitlements would be welcome, but cautioned that additional underground parking for taller buildings may be challenging to build so close to Lady Bird Lake. Vela has also floated the idea of directing money from the project to house people experiencing homelessness instead of requiring affordable housing that would not be built for years.

While it is not yet clear when the case will come back for second and third reading, it will likely be at least a month. Adler indicated that Council’s next meeting on April 21 would not give Council members enough time to work through the details of the complex proposal.

Rendering courtesy of 305 South Congress PUD via the city of Austin.

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