Closing the Book on Camelback

Lakeside project clears its last City Hall hurdles

Much opposition to the 144-acre project centered on the small portion directly on Lake Austin.

After three hours of discussion and debate of a case that’s featured plenty of both, the Austin City Council gave its final approval to the proposed Camelback planned unit development – a 144-acre, mixed-use development on the north shore of Lake Austin, just west of the Pennybacker Bridge.

The deliberations earlier this month – after more than a year of negotiations between owner/developer Jonathan Coon and nearby neighborhood associations – had some rough edges, but the final vote was 9-1-1 (with Council Member Ann Kitchen opposing, and CM Leslie Pool off the dais).

Approval was not a surprise, but opponents delivered one last swath of specific arguments, and Council members (primarily CM Alison Alter; the site is in her District 10) provided one more brace of detailed amendments to confirm previous agreements and (in theory) to minimize unnecessary environmental impact on the large tract of wooded lakeshore. Most of the opposition had to do with potential impacts directly upon the shoreline, in the form of docks, a clubhouse, and the “mechanical access” (“tram”) necessary to bring eventual residents down the cliffside (and up again). The Sierra Club’s Roy Waley praised the development as a whole but objected entirely to the docks, clubhouse, and tram. However, since lakeside residents want lakeshore access, and docks are already permitted under existing regulations from the 1980s, and both neighbors and city staff supported those uses, the objections didn’t carry much weight.

Kitchen’s related objections – worries about both the tram and about cliff construction on slopes – explained her opposition; when her amendments to establish additional environmental limitations were defeated, she decided to vote no. A recent wild hair – not Kitchen’s, although she posed the possibility – of a concealed elevator tunnel instead of the tram raised a bit of dust, but both the expense and the environmental uncertainty of that solution led to its being set aside. (Officially, a tunnel remains under consideration for site planning, but the likelihood of its being built is very slim.)

Coon had sweetened the deal by donating 25 acres of the site for dedicated parkland, to be maintained at his expense, and even included reconfiguring of the Pennybacker area to make it safer for car-parking, hikers and sightseers, and even weddings. Most importantly to the nearby neighborhoods, he had agreed to buy the nearby Champion 3 tract on RM 2222 (his purchase option would have expired the next morning), and convert its already approved but contentious development plan from an apartment complex to a senior-living center (presumably with much less traffic impact, with many fewer residential units).

So not everyone went home happy – opponents from across the lake fear the docks, etc. will be both an eyesore and a boating danger – but there was a good deal of mutual congratulation for the compromises arrived at among developer and neighbors. Mayor Steve Adler closed the voting and the meeting with thanks all around, for neighbors, staff, and landowner: “I want to thank Mr. Coon and his team for setting a new standard,” Adler said, “of how we can work through development when we try to get value for the whole city.”

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PUD, Camelback, Lake Austin, Jonathan Coon, Pennybacker Bridge, Champion Tract, RM 2222

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