Will the State Turn the Hog Farm into Edge City?
Right now, the Hog Farm is a dead end. North and east of the intersection of U.S. 183 and RR 620, all roads lead to the edge of the 446.4-acre Hog Farm tract and then stop. Usually pretty abruptly. Coming in from the old, abandoned, ruined Leander Rehabilitation Center, of which the empty tract now called the Hog Farm was once a part, the gravel path is severed by a tight strand of barbed wire, about neck height. Do not pass.
A bit further south, you'll find the extensions of Lakeline Mall Boulevard and Lake Creek Parkway -- major arterials, with turn lanes and traffic light poles and everything -- with nothing on them, built to support development that never happened, dissolving at the edge of the Hog Farm. The project was called (ironically, one hopes) Walden Park, lodged between the malls and powercenters, and its signs are still there, nearly hidden by tall dead weeds. One can usually find a Williamson County sheriff here, ready to roust parkers and dopers, and to nab speeders cutting around the 183/620 crossroads.
Around the corner off 620 is Rutledge Spur, aka Williamson County Road 183, barely wider than a V-8 Ford, lined on the east by a string of ranchettes, on the west by the raw land of the Hog Farm. It peters out in dust and rust and ruts where it crosses the old Austin and Northwestern railroad tracks. A cow lives at this corner, watching the empty tracks and the falling-down barn across them, trying her best to stay awake.
Welcome to the Boomtown.
Only in the last few weeks have the folks who live around the Hog Farm begun to learn what might be in store for their neighborhoods, and for the entire Northwest Corridor. It might be 11 million square feet of development, or as much as 18 million, which would be comparable in size, and much higher in density, to all of downtown Austin, which does not make downtown leaders very happy. This would sit right on top of one of the state's most congested highway intersections, in the middle of the enviro-sensitive Jollyville Plateau, and atop the north Edwards Aquifer, from which many of these folks derive all their drinking water.
These millions of square feet could take the form of yet another research-and-development tech campus, or of a New Urbanist neo-traditional mixed-use whatsahoozit, or of an edge city that's already being compared to Houston's Galleria and Las Colinas in the Metroplex, or any of several other flavors of big-ass development. It may have residential, or not. It may have industrial facilities, or not. It may have internal green spaces, or not. Nobody really knows. A very attractive "illustrative plan" exists for the project, but nothing therein is set in stone.
The vague, though ominous, outlines of the Hog Farm project are further obscured by a welter of jurisdictions, legal mandates, and vested interests. The Hog Farm itself is within the Austin city limits, but just barely, and it lies across the Williamson County line. Other than those folks on Rutledge Spur, most of the Hog Farm's neighbors live outside the city limits, and the largest chunk of them -- in the celebrated 183 East annexation area, just south across 620 -- would like to keep it that way. The rest live in unincorporated Williamson County or in the city of Cedar Park, which will realize few tax-base benefits from the Hog Farm, but suffer much of the undesirable impact.
Yet it was the Austin City Council, on November 20, that was asked to rule on the zoning request for the Leander Rehabilitation Planned-Unit Development (PUD) District, as the Hog Farm is formally known, with all its vagueness and unanswered questions. Were these normal circumstances, the council's unanimous thumbs-down, spearheaded by Councilmember Bill Spelman, would be the end of the story. "The proposal was just so bad," says Spelman, "and so out of kilter with what's good for the city and the region, that we just couldn't sign off on it."
But these are not normal circumstances.
City v. State
Unlike the Annex, which TxDOT is now developing as a research and development site, no transportation use was ever planned for the Leander site, and the Lege's intent was that TxDOT would flip it. But the bust intervened, and it sat fallow on the state's inventory for a decade. After severing a portion of the old Rehab Center -- including the part with buildings on it -- as right-of-way for the planned 183-A bypass road, TxDOT gladly gave its assent to the General Land Office's marketing the remaining 446 acres in earnest. Upon accepting an $18.3 million bid from one Madron Investments, and on the buyers' behalf, the General Land Office filed the Leander PUD zoning case, intended to be completed before closing.
Which means, as all who've suffered through the Central Austin saga of the Triangle well know, that the city of Austin's wishes regarding the Hog Farm's development mean only slightly more than squat. Now that the city has taken the whopping six months -- a heartbeat in planning-and-development time -- allowed by state law (SB 478) to review and decide the Leander PUD zoning case, a special panel will convene on December 17 to thank Austin for its opinion, and then decide what really happens to the Hog Farm.
It's possible that this panel will heed Austin's qualms -- certainly, Spelman is fighting to make sure they do -- but the odds are not great. Four of the six panelists are state officials: Land Commissioner Garry Mauro, TxDOT Commission chair David Laney, and two appointees from the School Lands Board. To the state, the Leander PUD as currently proposed is the only zoning, or at least the only level of development, that would justify the $18.3 million sale price for the land. (Madron's bid was nearly $4 million higher than the second-highest offer.) The other two panelists are Mayor Kirk Watson, from whom an anti-Hog Farm vote is guaranteed, and Williamson County Judge John Doerfler, from whom an anti-Hog Farm vote is not expected.
The fact that the state can override Austin planning and zoning decisions, and then turn around and sell the land -- unlike at the Triangle, focus of a long-term lease -- is obviously a bitter pill for Austin leaders to swallow. However, all parties in the Hog Farm deal deny a fix. "The contract authorizes the buyer to request the Land Office to file for zoning, which is what happened," says the GLO's Bob Hewgley. "But there's no guarantee in there to the buyer." That is, if Madron bids top-dollar on the assumption the state could procure whatever zoning it desired, that's their problem, not the state's.
"We've never represented to anyone that we're going to `super-entitle' the property to achieve a certain price," continues Hewgley, referring to the legal construct of zoning as an "entitlement" to a property owner. "We feel we're simply trying to preserve the value of the property, by obtaining zoning that's consistent with that already granted in the area."
There's no reason to doubt the General Land Office's sincerity, but the quietude of the Hog Farm's current environs makes one wonder how such a huge commercial project could be compatible with its neighbors. "Even though Lakeline Mall is around the corner," says Spelman, "so are thousands of single-family homes, especially to the south. And clearly, 11 million square feet is not going to help traffic on 183, or on 620, or for that matter on (RM) 2222 or even on I-35."
Which points to the last rope tying the city's hands -- pursuant to another state law (SB 1396, carried by Rep. Mike Krusee, whose district includes the Hog Farm and environs), the city of Austin is forbidden from using traffic as a criterion when reviewing projects around the 183/620 intersection. Krusee justified this patently offensive bit of special-interest legislation as a necessary protection for Williamson County from the city of Austin's wacky anti-growth policies.
The biggest beneficiary of SB 1396 is the Northwest Corridor's largest land baron, Bill Pohl of Pohl, Brown and Associates (PBA). In any direction from the Hog Farm -- along 183, or 620, or south along Lake Creek Parkway, or to the north along Brushy Creek Road and FM 1431-- one travels barely 100 yards before encountering PBA's distinctively homely green-and-yellow signs advertising land for development. The company owns or controls thousands of acres within the area covered by SB1396, and has long blamed the city of Austin and its wacky anti-growth policies for keeping the bulk of it green.
Of course, Pohl does not envision ranchettes and old barns on his lands, but powercenters and major multi-family projects and office towers and more -- all the edge-city accoutrements, dubbed by one observer "Pohl-Brown Town." Pohl first broke out of the business pages and onto the front page with his push to bring minor-league baseball to his Silverado development north of the Hog Farm. (As part of this effort, Pohl bankrolled the campaign against the competing city-sponsored baseball stadium for the Austin Swing/Phoenix Firebirds, thus earning the enmity of that proposal's supporters.) The ballpark was intended as a jump-start for other lucrative commercial uses throughout the Pohl, Brown dominions. As Pohl described it in 1995 to the Austin Business Journal, "My job is to make land values go up."
Now, who was that paying $18.3 million for the Hog Farm?
According to PBA, it is simply the agent on the Hog Farm deal; however, Bill Pohl was also one of the founding partners of Madron Investments, a Gibraltar-based company bankrolled by European investors. Madron Investments has in the past bought up millions of dollars worth of Northwest Austin land in tax default -- thus, due to its foreign ownership, delaying local government foreclosure -- and then sold the acreage to Pohl, Brown-managed partnerships. (Ironically, and perhaps intentionally -- though Madron's founding in 1994 predates the Hog Farm deal by several years -- the syndicate's name is Italian slang for `hog.') Some of the investors in those partnerships are currently suing both PBA and Madron, claiming that Pohl has not marketed their land for development with sufficient vigor.
So the economic relationship between the Hog Farm and the other thousands of PBA acres in the area is fairly complicated. At the very least, however, what gets built in the Leander PUD will not be designed to hinder the development potential of other Pohl, Brown holdings; at the most, the Hog Farm, with its state-secured zoning and protections under SB1396, can be the boomtown catalyst the baseball plan failed to be. However, says PBA spokesperson Cindy Rugeley, "All the different deals are being handled separately. There's no grand plan."
According to Rugeley, PBA has spent the last months working with local neighborhood groups and communities, including the cities of Leander and Cedar Park. However, according to Charles Lowe, an officer of the Neighborhood Association of Southwest Williamson County, which represents many of the homeowners closest to the Hog Farm, "We've never had any contact from Pohl, Brown or the state that I'm aware of. All we've had is the customary notice from the city of Austin."
Lowe takes care to point out that his association -- which covers many of the residents of the Springwoods MUD, a hotbed of anti-annexation sentiment -- "is not dead set against this development, but we'd like controls to protect the neighborhood. Forest North Elementary is right off of 620 (south of the Hog Farm), and in the past we've had developers purchase land near the school and put in liquor sales, so we don't want that. And if there's going to be any manufacturing, it should be as far away from our neighborhood as possible.
"We're also concerned about traffic," Lowe continues. "In fact, I talked to Garry Mauro myself about that, and I think he feels some concern about traffic in the neighborhood." The General Land Office's public information director, Ron Calhoun, gave a similar assessment of Mauro's views, contrary to Mauro's quoted comments in a recent column by Statesman editor Richard Oppel, in which the land commissioner's sentiments can fairly be summarized as "to hell with y'all." Has the land commissioner since realized that his comments were ill-considered in light of his nascent, but already sputtering, gubernatorial campaign? Hardly, says Calhoun. "Mauro has always said that we intend to do a traffic impact statement on the area," says Calhoun. "He is always very concerned about traffic." Calhoun does note that the commissioner's hands are tied, by law, to some degree. "By statute, we have to preserve and enhance the value of state land," Calhoun says. "[Mauro] can't reject projects out of hand."
Mauro's spokesman wouldn't predict how Mauro will vote on the Hog Farm, but Spelman is confident that the members of the review panel can be convinced the current project is a bad idea."We have a lot of good ammunition to lobby the [review panel], and show them the demands this project would place on their constituencies are pretty high in exchange for a few million dollars," Spelman says. "The costs to Central Texas are a lot greater than the marginal benefit in cash to the state."
Top Concern: Traffic
The costs may be felt most acutely by Cedar Park, which from the sidelines has taken no official position on the Hog Farm. Alone in the Northwest Corridor, Cedar Park has undertaken a comprehensive plan to guide its future development. One of its goals is to make Cedar Park less of a bedroom community and diversify its land uses, which may be difficult with the Hog Farm sucking up potential users. Another is to develop a proper "downtown" to replace the strip malls and warehouses that currently line 183 (Bell Boulevard in Cedar Park), which would be no mean feat in the shadow of 11 million or more square feet of new development.
For now, though, and like everyone else, Cedar Park's main concern is traffic. "We'd like to encourage more commercial development and employment opportunities and tax base in our city, but we can't really begrudge another city [Austin] doing the same," says Cedar Park planner David Hutton. "But we need to plan for the impacts -- especially the impact on traffic -- of this development on our city."
As Hutton describes it, traffic in Cedar Park is already so bad that any incentive for roadway improvements -- even something as potentially detrimental as the Hog Farm -- could be welcome. He notes that Cedar Park already sees an average of two wrecks a day on 183, and that "We desperately need funding to complete 183-A and the other improvements (including to FM 1431, Anderson Mill Road and Lakeline Boulevard) called for by the Austin Transportation Study.
"We're hoping projects like the Hog Farm will make these improvements that much higher a priority," Hutton continues. "Sometimes development can help complete the infrastructure you require, so we don't necessarily look on growth like this as bad, as long as we can follow through on the roadways and infrastructure to support them."
The ATS is about the only venue in which the different jurisdictions and players being rocked by the Hog Farm have tried to cooperate on anything. A more global, or to be precise, regional, perspective will be required if the Hog Farm ever comes to reality -- or if the state review panel is to be persuaded to keep it a fantasy. "We're going to have a lot more authority with the state if we have a united front of all those jurisdictions," Spelman says. "If it's just a bunch of enviro geeks from the Austin City Council, then no one will listen."
Of course, regional amity in the Northwest Corridor is about as low as it's ever been, with angry MUDs resisting annexation, Krusee defending them and taunting and threatening the city of Austin, Williamson County raiding Austin for new employers and residents, diverse Austin constituencies lining up to wallop on Bill Pohl, and everyone blaming everyone else for the hell that is 183. "With annexation, even if the neighborhoods up there don't want the Hog Farm, we [the city council] are the last people they're going to ask for help," Spelman says. "And it also comes down to ideology; they're conservative and laissez-faire and support the free market, and the Hog Farm is nothing if not the free market at work."
Nonetheless, without some form of a regional plan, the conversion of the Northwest Corridor, via the blunt instrument of the Hog Farm, into a new urban center could spell disaster for all concerned. "I don't know who convenes the meeting," says Spelman, "but we need to decide how to talk about this -- to get a regional master plan going that has some details, not on how we should zone individual properties, but of where we want to build new cities. We need to sit down and deal with this."