Packing the residents into the Northwest Recreation Center's basketball court last Thursday was a land swap, of sorts, whereby the city wanted to sell a 92.5-acre tract of land called Park West in order to raise enough money to purchase a 942-acre tract called Ivanhoe. Staff's heart appeared to be in the right place -- after all, the point was to buy up the huge Ivanhoe tract to add it to the proposed 30,000-acre Balcones Canyonlands Preserve (BCP), the system of wildlife sanctuaries that Austin voters directed the city to buy four years ago to preserve wilderness areas and to protect wildlife such as the golden-cheeked warbler. But in its haste to come up with the $4.5 million necessary to buy Ivanhoe to preserve the cedar trees, city staff may have lost sight of the forest. The Houston developer looking to council to approve a zoning change so it could purchase the Park West land for $3.4 million, Cypress Realty, would have brought high density residential and commercial development to the environmentally sensitive area, along with 13,000 more cars a day on RM 2222, requiring a widening of the road to accommodate the increase. Oh, yeah, and the Texas Dept. of Transportation hadn't promised us a dime to help us pay for it.
"It's the dumb deal of the decade," quips Beverly Griffith, who says she has been against the proposal since she first heard of it during her second week in office. "As if that [deal] made any financial sense at all, any environmental sense, any traffic-calming sense."
Junie Plummer, as the city's property agent in the deal, defends the swap concept, saying it was an honest attempt by city staff to add high quality habitat to BCP. "It was truly an effort to sell 92 acres in order to purchase 942," says Plummer. Ivanhoe is smack in the center of the northernmost chunk of BCP, and both staff and council agree that its purchase is critical to BCP's effectiveness as wildlife habitat. Assistant City Manager Joe Lessard argues that the Park West sale made perfect sense considering limited funding options. "Realize that Ivanhoe is not the only parcel there in threat of development. The more we can acquire of those parcels, the less there will be of development," Lessard says. "We recommended the plan in the first place to acquire as much of the habitat land as quickly as possible."
Ahhh, but here's the rub. While the 92-for-942 acres sounds reasonable, it is vital to note that as part of the deal, city staff is also promoting the sale of another city-owned tract nearby, called Cortana. It's true that the Cortana sale would bring in another $4.25 million. But wait -- Cortana is a huge wilderness area weighing in at a whopping 640 acres. Trading almost 730 acres to purchase 942 acres -- that scenario doesn't sound nearly as brilliant as the city's "92 for 942" mantra it's been using to defend itself. Not to mention the fact that the total revenues that would result from the sale of the two tracts -- together with the $1.1 million in federal monies that Austin has received to purchase Ivanhoe -- would amount to $8.75 million. That's more than twice the amount the city needs to buy the $3.4 million Ivanhoe tract. Why would Austinites who set aside tracts like Cortana and Park West ever agree to laying them on the altar of traffic and development? And while extra money is always a good thing, it's not even necessary for the Ivanhoe purchase. Where was city staff's head?
In her defense, Plummer points out that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&W) determined that Park West and Cortana were inferior habitats to Ivanhoe, and that USF&W suggested that the city sell low-quality habitat to finance the purchase. "Ivanhoe is a number one priority area," she explains.
But the surrounding neighborhood residents say that the trade-off -- 730 acres for 942 acres -- missed the big picture. Calling themselves the 2222 Corridor Coalition, dozens of neighborhood organizations came together last Thursday to the standing-room-only meeting at the rec center to protest the Park West plan in the name of wildlife habitat. "There are many here who support Austin's quality of life," said Worth Kilcrease, president of the Jester Homeowners' Association, and, he added, that includes maintaining the fragile environment in their area. The rare golden-cheeked warbler can be found throughout the area, including on Park West and Ivanhoe, and several avid bird-watchers spoke about seeing warblers in the Park West tract. "I've only twice seen golden-cheeked warblers and this [walk through Park West] was one of those times," said James Mason, an environmental engineer who also voiced his concern about the development's impact on the Bull Creek watershed.
As for the city's colossal traffic projections should this deal have gone through, Mayor Kirk Watson says he was shocked to learn that traffic had not been considered in staff's proposal for the site. Plummer counters that it is the responsibility of the developer to consider traffic, and Lessard concurs. "Traffic wouldn't have come up in the discussion for the habitat plan. It would come up in the process for zoning review, which is exactly what happened," says Lessard.
However, since the proposed development of Park West would increase traffic on RM 2222 from 30,000 trips per day to 120,000, requiring a widening of 2222 to accommodate the increase, traffic numbers are critical to the city's position in this zoning case. Widening 2222, which cuts into a cliff on one side and ends at a sheer drop to the Colorado River on the other, would require cantilevering one lane over the lake and using dynamite to blast the other lane further into the rock. "Even if we did put the sticks over the river and blow into the cliff, you're still only getting 60,000 trips per day," says Bill Spelman, pointing out the futility of relying on 2222 to carry heavy traffic.
Interestingly, another commercial development called 2222 Business Park -- approved by a more developer-friendly council last year -- will eventually be situated just west of Park West and is estimated to bring another 9,500 cars a day on RM 2222. The only councilmember to vote against that development deal at the time was Daryl Slusher. That's the same wild-eyed enviro who was publicly spanked by an angry crowd of suburbanites earlier this year for leading an attempt to close down half of Southwest Parkway. This time around, Slusher was in good company in his opposition -- every single councilmember present last Thursday and all nine members of the Planning Commission voted against allowing Cypress Realty the zoning change that would have cemented the Park West deal.
The entire council seems to agree that buying Ivanhoe is critical to the success of the BCP, and Griffith says they are devoted to finding alternative means of financing the deal. However council comes up with the money, though, it better do it quick -- its option to buy the Ivanhoe tract runs out on August 11. Griffith points to possible sources such as grants, loans, private funding, and "other municipalities," presumably meaning Travis County, which shares responsibility for BCP. Neither she nor anyone else with the city was prepared to say how they might finance the deal. "We will find the money," promises Griffith. If the council's risk backfires, the tract of prime wildlife habitat could go on the block to the highest bidder.
According to the mayor, however, the important message in his rejection of the Park West deal is a change in the traditional win-lose deal-making at the city. At the meeting, Slusher made a point to praise the Mayor for encouraging a new way of doing business. "I want to thank the Mayor for not accepting the kind of choice we were faced with -- either to put more traffic on 2222 or to lose a big part of the BCP. We don't have to make choices like that."
Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.