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Parks board raises concerns over Statesman PUD proposal, calling it ‘not superior’

Friday, August 26, 2022 by Samuel Stark

The Parks and Recreation Board said Wednesday that the highly anticipated mixed-used development plan composed of several buildings on the former Austin American-Statesman lot does not do enough to protect the iconic space in front of the Congress Avenue Bridge.

In a unanimous recommendation to City Council, the parks board said the proposal does not fulfill the criteria of superiority. For a planned unit development to be considered superior, it must preserve the environment, use innovative and high-quality design and ensure adequate public facilities and services.

“This PUD is not superior, and it needs to be held to the regulating plan,” Board Chair Laura Cottam-Sajbel told the Austin Monitor.

Members of the parks board are concerned that the PUD in its current form will limit access to the hike-and-bike trail in front of the Statesman building, where visitors watch the bats emerge from under the bridge in a celebrated nightly spectacle.

“The (PUD) applicants’ plan requires pedestrians to navigate multiple skyscrapers to find designated park access, a situation far less equitable, welcoming and accessible to an area the public has used a community gathering spot and tourist destination for years,” the parks board said in its recommendation to City Council.

If approved, the developers will erect a building up to 525 feet high in front of the staircase that now connects pedestrians to the hike-and-bike trail from the Congress bridge. Cottam-Sajbel said this plan prioritizes residents of the future complex over non-residents.

Cottam-Sajbel also sits on the South Central Waterfront Advisory Board which ensures the city and developers follow the vision plan for the South Central shore of Lady Bird Lake. This plan was formally adopted by Council in 2016 and updated in 2020. The plan imagines a plaza extending directly from South Congress Avenue with views of downtown and Lady Bird Lake. The plaza would have ramps down to the water and large amphitheater-like steps for bat watching.

“It was a great idea because you could still see the skyline. It (was) a very dramatic view entering the park and (would have been) very welcoming,” Cottam-Sajbel said. “And what I see them doing by putting that building (at the staircase) is they’re making a private park for this development. People who don’t live there aren’t going to feel welcome.”

Jerry Rusthoven of the Planning and Zoning Department didn’t share the same concerns that the new buildings will make the hike-and-bike trail any less accessible.

Rusthoven said the plan has at least three access points to the hike-and-bike trail, including one plaza-like walkway, or easement, that would sit between buildings and lead to an area with large stairs similar to the vision plan design where people can observe the bats. The easement would be open to the public at any time of day, he said.

“I don’t think the newly dedicated parkland would be inaccessible to anybody in Austin,” Rusthoven said.

He pointed out that the area where people currently gather to watch the bats is on private property and is not a public park.

“It’s just an easement that says people can walk across the property from the bridge to the other side of the property,” he said.

The Statesman PUD won the unanimous support of the Planning Commission earlier this year. Rusthoven said the developers convinced the Planning Commission that the project was superior because of plans to construct 95 percent of the proposed 4,000 parking spaces underground. 

“To us, from a city planning perspective and an urban design perspective, it’s a true advantage to have the parking underground because the alternative, of course, is to put it in parking garages,” Rusthoven said. 

City Council unanimously approved the zoning for the PUD on the first of three required readings in April. If not postponed, Council will vote on the second reading of the proposal at the Council meeting next week. If approved, Council will likely have to vote on another reading one more time before zoning is approved.

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here. This story has been changed since publication to clarify the role of the South Central Waterfront Advisory Board.

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