The Promised Land
Jews and Neighbors Lay Competing Claims
How good and how pleasant it is when people dwell together!" It's not every day that a developer graces its open-letters-to-concerned-neighbors with a Biblical epigraph like the one above, Psalm 133 to be exact. But then, as this same letter goes on to read, "The Jewish Federation of Austin and the Congregations Agudas Achim and Beth Israel are not `developers.'"
We all understand the sentiment - these institutions aren't greedy, insensitive buckmakers, with all the baggage attached in this town, in this age, to the label `developer.' Yet the project in question - the proposed Dell Jewish Community Campus - is unquestionably a development, and a big one at that.
On a 40-acre site off Far West Boulevard, across from Murchison Middle School, the JFA et al. envision a new Jewish Community Center, with meeting rooms, athletic facilities, ballfields, day care, retirement housing, and a school, along with the two congregations, each with its own synagogue, associated facilities, and school. This adds up to more than 300,000 square feet of built space, with 800 on-site parking spaces, and an additional 4,000, or 6,000, or more, vehicle trips per day, on what's now purely vacant land, on streets where traffic is already too heavy for many neighbors' liking.
Unsurprisingly, the DJCC has spawned a textbook neighbor/developer battle which has been transmuted, if not confused, by the cultural issues involved. "A lot of folks around City Hall see this as a `Jewish issue,' says one city source, "but the neighbors have a really good case." That case lands in the city council's collective lap on March 12, when the council hears appeals of the Planning Commission's January approval of the DJCC as planned.
This hearing should offer an ample glimpse of the acrimony which has made the JFA's Biblical allusion highly ironic. Today, both sides might be more attuned to the words of Psalm 123: "Have mercy on us, for we have endured much ridicule from the proud, much contempt from the arrogant."
Anyone who visits the current Jewish Community Center on Jollyville Road can see why the JFA is itching to build a new and bigger site. The Federation's offices are crammed into what the schools euphemistically call a "portable building"; you and I would call it a trailer.
As JFA executive director Barry Silverberg, housed at one end of the trailer, discusses the need for the DJCC and the errancies of the Northwest Austin Civic Association (NACA), his staff announces the imminent arrival of residents from Chimney Corners Drive, on the east edge of the DJCC site. They're bringing a petition of support for the DJCC, with the caveat that the neighborhood leadership does not speak for them.
Meanwhile, back on Chimney Corners, and even more so on Greystone Drive, which runs along the DJCC site's north edge, very nearly all the houses have sprouted bright-orange "Downsize Dell Campus" yard signs. Among these homes, on a little cul-de-sac off Greystone, is that of Patti Leonard, a member of the Beth Israel congregation who, in her telling, first alerted the JFA years ago to what was then the Hart Ranch. "So this is really all my fault," she says. She now sits on NACA's downsize-DJCC steering committee, as do two other members of the Jewish congregations.
Back then - in the early 1990s, a generation ago in Austin time - there wasn't yet a "D" in "DJCC." And when Michael and Susan Dell (she a longtime JFA board member) acquired and donated the bulk of the Hart Ranch for the project, the last "C" still stood for "Center." As late as 1996, the project was still just a replacement, albeit on a grander scale, for the Jollyville Road facilities. At that point, most of the Hart Ranch's neighbors, and NACA as a whole, supported the project.
Not until last summer did the members of Agudas and Beth Israel vote to relocate their congregations from their current Central Austin locales (about a quarter mile apart, between Lamar and MoPac) onto the DJCC site, apparently after substantial lobbying by DJCC organizers and backers (not the Dells) who had made the move a condition of their financial support. As all familiar with Jewish Austin know, any kind of merger of Agudas (Conservative) and Beth Israel (Reform) is out of the question, so each congregation will have separate-but-equal facilities on the DJCC site, further adding to its size.
In practical terms, the congregations have become the back-breaking straw for the neighbors, but the backstory is more complicated. As you might expect, both sides claim that they have always been clear about their position and the other side has not. That is, the JFA argues that Agudas and Beth Israel were always, at least potentially, part of the DJCC plan, and that NACA has now moved the goalposts. "The JFA's position has not been presented to the neighbors, by the neighborhood leaders, with as much clarity as we would like," Silverberg says.
The neighbors claim the opposite. "There's a big difference between what they proposed in 1996 and what they want to build today," says steering committee leader Alan Tannenbaum. Adding to their frustration, the neighbors didn't see the current, greatly enlarged DJCC plan until after it was both approved by the congregations and filed with the city.
This difference of perspective likely ensures the sides' deep impasse. There is also mutual suspicion that both sides speak with forked tongues - the JFA feels the NACA leaders don't speak for the bulk of the DJCC's neighbors, while NACA has its doubts that the center as proposed really reflects the will of the Jewish community, or at least the members' congregations. (Both sides talk about a "silent majority" that agrees with them.)
The NACA concerns are numerous - more than 40 recommendations that "would bring the plans for the DJCC closer to a state that would be compatible with the surrounding community," in the words of the official NACA position paper. These address a gamut of potential impacts, from restrictions on construction traffic to the elimination of lighted ball fields, a longtime taboo in Northwest Hills.
This may seem picayune, but every neighborhood has its traditions. Also, the DJCC site sits about 20 feet above Far West Boulevard, on the edge of the old quarry within which much of the neighborhood lies. Put a 30-foot light standard on top of that, and you can end up with not a lighted field, but a Moonlight Tower.
An Exhaust-ing Problem
The big NACA beef, though - as with most neighborhoods in such situations - is traffic. The DJCC site is zoned residential (SF-3), and if it were built out with duplexes, the most intense use normally allowed for this zoning, it would generate between 2,500 and 3,000 trips per day, using the arcane formulae on which traffic engineers rely. Both in 1987 and 1991, the city rejected multifamily projects at the Hart Ranch, because the surrounding streets couldn't support the added traffic, since they were designed with this SF-3 traffic load in mind.
The DJCC, though, will exceed that traffic load by at least 50% (to 4,200 trips per day) and maybe more than 100% (to 6,000), according to the DJCC's own estimates. The difference depends on how many people carpool, walk, use more than one DJCC facility on the same trip, are already traveling through the neighborhood, and so on. These factors, lumped together under the label "internal capture," are accounted for in every developer's traffic analysis, but the internal-capture rate claimed for the DJCC is mighty generous, and in the neighbors' eyes amounts to traffic voodoo. "They haven't done anything to actually reduce traffic at the site," says Tannenbaum. "They just changed the assumptions."
The traffic counts will shadow the city council's action on the DJCC, due to the project's uncommon route through the pipeline. Normally, a project of this size and scope would require commercial, rather than residential, zoning, but when the JFA consultants filed for a zoning change, the neighbors, within three days, produced a valid petition opposing it - which, with the current council, means sudden death.
So the DJCC is instead floating to council on a raft of (four) conditional-use permits allowing the project to be built in SF-3 zoning. (The assisted-living retirement housing would still require rezoning at some point.) These permits are hard to come by, since they require the Planning Commission and council to offer "findings of fact" that the project meets nine separate criteria that assure that its impact won't be worse than customary SF-3 (or whatever) uses.
Now, the DJCC traffic counts alone would supposedly doom conditional-use permitting, so when the Planning Commission approved all four permits, a NACA appeal was inevitable. Four additional appeals were filed on NACA's behalf, by parties including the Austin Neighborhoods Council and the Northwest Austin Neighborhood Alliance.
In addition, the JFA's lawyer, the much-vilified Richard Suttle of Armbrust Brown - last seen before council telling Beverly Griffith that she "didn't understand the [development] process," and before that flogging for the misbegotten Tannehill Apartments - filed his own appeal. Supposedly, this was for tactical reasons, but the neighbors suspect that Suttle is trying to eliminate the minor (in NACA's view) restrictions imposed by the Planning Commission. "Whatever the reason," NACA's latest letter-to-neighbors reads, "it was very bad for public relations."
Although the relationship has been strained, NACA is quick to point out that it is not against any development. As NACA's letter puts it, "nobody has disagreed with general statements about the benefit of the Jewish Community Center, or a Jewish facility of any kind," both to the city at large and, perhaps, to the neighborhood.
As its slogan states, NACA would like to "downsize Dell Campus," scaling back the conditional uses and enforcing a traffic limit comparable to the SF-3 baseline. This presents two quandaries. The permits actually enable the Community Center itself, and the uses that go with them were all present in the 1996 plan that NACA endorsed, though their sizes have changed. The congregations and their schools are - like all religious institutions, even the largest megachurches - permitted uses in any zoning district.
As for limiting traffic, how, exactly, does the city do this? Regular Channel 6 watchers know that projects are often approved by Planning Commission and council on the condition that traffic be limited to so-many trips per day. If you're talking about a residential, office, or industrial project, that's pretty easy to do; traffic will naturally be limited by the number of units and/or types of uses allowed in those units. What limits the use of a synagogue?
"One of our major concerns is that the DJCC is not only too big now, but will just continue to get bigger," says Leonard, noting that downsizing now would create room for growth down the line. "Beth Israel has already doubled in size in nine years. What happens in another 10 years? Do they close the gates and say, `Sorry, no more Jews can come here'? The impacts will just get worse and worse."
If that's true, though, downsizing the DJCC defers, rather than defuses, the problem. And even if we set aside the political sensitivity involved in voting "against the Jews," the current council - with its great interest in urban infill and a compact city - might well suffer some dissonance if it turns down a project that conforms, at least in part, to these ideals.
"We're constructing an asset not just for the Jewish community, but for the whole neighborhood and the whole city," says Silverberg. He adds that the Austin Jewish community is already concentrated in the Northwest - especially in the 78731 zip code, where Northwest Hills lies - and that concentration would likely increase with the DJCC in place. (On top of the usual reasons, there are religious ones; traditional teaching forbids Jews to drive, or even ride in a car, on the Sabbath.) "That gives our leadership very good reason to take the quality of the neighborhood very seriously. And we genuinely believe that traffic will be contained and that we've made concessions to the neighbors."
Expect this view to be roundly contradicted - and also vigorously defended - come next Thursday. The DJCC may indeed be a unique project, serving unique needs and bringing unique benefits to Austin, and thus deserving to be approved under unique standards. But the neighbors are far from convinced. "Four thousand cars coming from the ABC Home Center, the XYZ Fitness Center, or the DJCC's Community Center, is still a lot of cars," reads NACA's latest letter. "The sound of 800 doors slamming is the same, regardless of religious affiliation."