The Austin Chronicle

This Land Is Our Land

News From the Fronts of State-City Land War

By Mike Clark-Madison, April 24, 1998, News

Tom Terkel of Cencor Realty

photograph by Alan Pogue

At the end of a very long night, Sabrina Burmeister looked, well, chagrined. "If everyone knew this was a sure thing," she said, "why didn't anyone tell me?" "This" was the Planning Commission's rejection of the proposed Triangle Square shopping complex, a goal to which Burmeister - spokesperson and de facto leader of the Neighbors of Triangle Park - has devoted most of the last 14 months. Of course, the NTP is why the case was open and shut; on April 14, the commission was faced with hundreds of citizens, 98% of whom came to bury Triangle Square, not to praise it. And Austin is still a democracy.

But were it entirely a democracy, the commission's vote, and the inevitable concurrence of the City Council, would mark the end of the road for Tom Terkel, Cencor Realty, Texas MHMR, Randall's, and Act III, and their urban-oasis strip mall between 45th, Lamar, and Guadalupe. In the real world, because the Triangle is state-owned land, the city's decision is subject to review and "modification" by an ad hoc board dominated by state officials.

The last time this scenario - prescribed by legislation known as SB 478 - played itself out, with the Hog Farm tract in Northwest Austin, the state review board spanked the city's little butt. The city threatened legal action, and the silent partners in the deal, European investors who (credulously) trusted Northwest Corridor land baron Bill Pohl with their money, rushed to Austin to work out a compromise.

No such arrival of the cavalry is likely at the Triangle: If the state review board gives Cencor the green light to build, someone, whether city or citizen, will take the bad guys to court. Of this you can be sure. To avoid this, Terkel and the citizen opposition - led by NTP and the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association - would have to, through renewed negotiation, come up with a more widely agreeable Triangle. This is highly unlikely, since what the neighbors want is a project that Cencor neither knows how or can afford to build. Or the state - specifically Land Commissioner Garry Mauro - will have to defer to the city's wisdom.

And what would that wisdom be? Here's the rub - which hung up Planning Commissioner Rachael Rawlins, required the assistance of legal counsel on the dais, and will no doubt be cited by the state if/when it overturns a city rejection of Triangle Square. There are two arguments against the Cencor proposal: It would create a negative impact on North Central Austin's infrastructure, especially roadways, and it's not compatible with the "traditional" neighborhoods that surround it.

Now, according to SB 478, the city has to cite specific reasons why a state-land project conflicts with local ordinances, i.e., our Land Development Code. On the impact question, this can be done easily, if generically, by reference to the city's "comprehensive plan." Technically, that's Austin Tomorrow, adopted 20 years ago, but the city has since posited that all planning ordinances and amendments to the LDC - which happens with every zoning case - themselves constitute a "plan." This is a crock, but it may be a useful one.

Anyway, since almost every controversial zoning case - from the Dell Jewish Community Center to the Barton Creek PUD - turns on the project's impact to infrastructure, there's plenty of precedent for the city's denying or restricting zoning on these grounds. There is, however, no LDC section that says Hyde Park is special. Someday, there may be - in the form of an adopted neighbhorhood plan, which could dictate whether Triangle Square is properly NewUrb or neo-trad enough to share North Central Austin with the Hyde Park NA. But not now.

Which means? Well, the alternative Triangle plan advanced by the HPNA and NTP may be clearly preferable as an urban design, but how will it reduce the negative impact of the project? It's more dense, still contains the traffic magnets of the three anchor tenants, and - with its much-discussed internal street grid - will require a lot of complicated traffic engineering.

Remember that the Genesis Group - the city's consultants who midwifed the Triangle charrette in November - proposed millions of dollars in traffic improvements simply to make a "good" Triangle plan work. This may indeed be a lower sticker price than what Terkel's Triangle Square would require, but it's still clear that any intense commercial development of the site, no matter its character, would create a traffic disaster that the city and its citizens will have to clean up.

So if you were hoping that the Triangle controversy was nearing a conclusion, think again. The City Council has to act on Terkel's zoning application by mid-May (six months after it was filed). The state board of review, assuming it is convened, will likely meet within the following month. But the subsequent court case, if there is one - aiming, most likely, to strike down SB 478 in its entirety - could take years. By which time the Legislature will have had time to pass a new law to further complicate the city's life.

Remapping Mueller

Meanwhile, on another front of the state-city land war, on April 7 - at the same time that the Triangle was originally set to come before the Planning Commission - the city's Robert Mueller Airport redevelopment consultants, San Francisco-based ROMA Design Group, presented the latest fruits of their planning labors.

The obligatory disclaimer: When you look at the map [above], repeat to yourself softly: This is a draft. However, this is probably a realistic stopping point where the Big Pic is concerned, given the now-becoming-sorta-hurried timeframe of the process. Both the specific land-use plan and the economic-development apparatus for building it are supposed to be complete, and adopted by the City Council, before Mueller closes next spring.

ROMA is fairly nervous about this map getting too much public currency, since the consultants were themselves hurried in producing it. The previous version of the Mueller concept plan, presented in February to the various New Mueller task forces and focus groups, looked quite different from this one. But at the 11th hour, just as ROMA was set to make the plan officially public, the State of Texas - as you may know, the New Mueller's major landowner and tenant - put the kibosh on that version.

In that rendition, the site was divided symmetrically by a commercial/mixed-use spine (sorta like what the Triangle is supposed to be) running north-south, connecting today's Pershing and Berkman Drives. West of that was a new (and NewUrb) residential community, east of it the state's office and parking vastnesses. (The aggregate size of the State's planned development, which keeps changing, is now somewhere around five million square feet.)

The current plan, set for official public unveiling April 29, most directly addresses state concerns (they wanted, among other things, more frontage on Airport and I-35), but also speaks to some issues brought up by neighbors. In this rendition, the residential portions are closer to the existing green spaces east of the airport.

And the whole scheme isn't marred by the traditional east-west division of Austin - that is, dumping the state offices, likely to be not-all-that-pleasant neighbors, near the lower-income neighborhoods to the east, and putting the residential, likely to be boutique and trendy, next to the already gentrified neighborhoods around Cherrywood.

There's still plenty that needs to be decided, of course. For instance, what sort of traffic problems are we going to see over here? Upon seeing this plan, neighborhood leaders immediately descended to micro-level traffic analysis - where do the signals go, how do we align the New Mueller streets with the existing ones, how are state workers going to get here from the interstate, et cetera, et al.

And what kind of residential development will grace the New Mueller? So far, ROMA has been talking about what is basically row housing - very small-lot subdivision, like about 25 feet across. This is to produce density, and support the light-rail line that's now routed straight through the New Mueller, while still allowing for ownership - a big concern for neighbors who fear the New Mueller turning into a rental-dominated student ghetto.

Whether Austin will be ready for this kind of housing remains to be seen. And what goes in the new rendition of the "town center," in the northwest quadrant of the map? The commercial/mixed-use part, so far, follows a typical NewUrb vision of stores below, lofts on top. But behind it are large blocks that are currently just labeled "multifamily," which conjures horrific visions of the mother of all student apartment complexes. This is an area that, ROMA says, "needs refinement."

What most of all needs refinement, or at least needs to stop changing weekly, is the state's plan for its third - or half... or will it be more than half? - of the Mueller acreage. The likelihood that the state will build anything that looks vaguely New Urbanist or neo-traditional is next to nil. Even getting structured parking would be an achievement. Genuine mixed use seems foreclosed by state regs and arcane tax guidelines.

It's the still-unanswered questions about the state's participation at the New Mueller that are driving the neighborhoods into potential attack mode. And it's clear that local sentiment here will be affected by the state's actions over at the Triangle. In the middle is poor ROMA Design Group, trying to address everyone's needs. There's little doubt that, even after the Triangle is disposed of, the state-city land war, on any number of battlegrounds, will be a fact of life in Austin for months and years to come.

Copyright © 2023 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.