Controversial Austin mixed-use project wins first OK from Council; hurried negotiations continue behind scenes

Whether it sends a message or not, Austin City Council, as expected, gave “placeholder” approval Thursday to a controversial rezoning that could pave the way for a dense mixed-use development near the intersection of 45th Street and Bull Creek Road in Central Austin — with some caveats.

The developer, ARG Bull Creek Ltd., has serious reservations about amendments to the rezoning request. It has threatened to scrap current plans for the Grove at Shoal Creek and instead proceed with a standard single-family residential project if those amendments move ahead.

A group of neighbors, the Bull Creek Road Coalition, said during Thursday’s Council meeting that they had entered mediation with the developer and asked the city for more time before bringing the measure back for second and third readings.

“This is a placeholder,” Mayor Steve Adler said as he opened debate on the issue at City Hall. “This vote is not intended to indicate support of these particular caps, nor does it suggest that these are the only two issues on the table. It allows us to move forward.”

Adler’s amendments would cap office space at the Grove at 115,000 square feet — down from 210,000 in the developer’s plans — and cap retail space at 100,000 square feet instead of 150,000. It would also permit 1,700 residential units to be built on the site, as the developer requested.

Jeff Howard, a representative for ARG, said the developer appreciated Adler’s efforts to move the debate ahead but argued that caps on office and retail space would make the project economically unviable as a mixed-use development.

“We’ve seen examples in the city where mixed-use developments have failed to have the right mix of retail,” he said. “And office use supports the restaurants and retail by providing necessary daytime customers.”

Brian Cox, vice president of the Bull Creek Road Coalition, blasted Howard’s remarks as “doublespeak,” particularly when it came to the development’s controversial and traffic impact analysis, which has become a point of contention. Cox said the proposed development would be too dense and cause more traffic than is suitable in an area surrounded by single-family homes.

“This is not mixed use on Lamar or 35th or Guadalupe. We’re talking about a development that is literally smack dab in the middle of six residential neighborhoods, that have kids on trikes,” he said. “These are 1940s,1950s neighborhoods.”

But then, concluding his speech, Cox announced that BCRC and ARG had agreed to enter third-party mediation to try and come to a middle ground.

That news was welcomed by many on Council. The mediation will occur under a ticking clock of sorts. Council, in granting first approval, called for the measure to come back to the dais on Nov. 10. Cox and Councilwoman Leslie Pool, whose District 7 abuts the development, said the measure should be delayed further if mediation is not successful by Nov. 10.

“I am encouraged by key amendments that have been put forth by the neighbors in this first reading,” said Pool, announcing her intention to vote to approve on first reading despite current reservations. “We are taking first steps in the right direction. The project, as it stands, is not where I or the community want it to be.”

District 10 Councilwoman Sheri Gallo, in whose district the proposed project is located, also praised the decision for the two sides to enter mediation.

District 4 Councilman Greg Casar, who has made affordable housing and housing density two of his key policy platforms in his re-election campaign for the Nov. 8 vote, was also concerned about the implications of the amendments attached to the rezoning, but voted for it because it “has citywide implications to provide good jobs and tech space.”

The measure passed on first reading 8-2 with District 1 Councilwoman Ora Houston and District 9 Councilwoman Kathie Tovo voting against. Tovo said the proposal did not meet the requirements for a planned unit development rezoning, which requires that it be “superior” to the single-family zoning that can currently be built there. Her critiques focused mainly on the affordable housing requirements and how those would be met.

Source: Austin Business Journal

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