Just Say No

Council Draws on Tomorrow Plan to Redirect Growth

illustration by Doug Potter

It was 1979 revisited in council chambers last week, as councilmembers dusted off the tenets of the long since abandoned Austin Tomorrow Plan, the 20-year-old vision statement that called for -- among other things -- the direction of new development to a desired development zone and away from environmentally sensitive areas, and the pursuit of public policies that would encourage urban, multi-use development projects. Sound familiar? By turning down Cencor Realty's designs on the Triangle site in one vote, and buying the Brodie tract from JPI in another, the city put its money -- and its regulatory muscle -- where its mouth is and confirmed the tentative but growing belief that this council is willing to look beyond the bottom line, beyond growth at any cost, to growth that is, dare we say -- Smart.

The council's 7-0 rejection of a Cencor Realty zoning request that would have allowed a
12-screen movie theatre, a Randalls grocery store, and a Barnes & Noble bookstore ended this stage of a year-and-a-half long process that has challenged the city and residents to define their vision for the area, and by implication, for urban in-fill in Austin in general. The terms of the debate were largely aesthetic. Although concerns about the project's traffic impact on the neighborhood rated serious debate among all parties involved, the Triangle issue from the beginning has been best characterized by those "No Strip Mall" yard signs blanketing Hyde Park, the ones that played on our collective fear that if we allow one more Barnes & Noble, one more multiple-screen theatre, one more "big box" anything in the middle of town, we'll all be living in suburban hell before we know it. Supporters of the proposed Triangle development were largely those who welcomed a little suburban sheen, and its accompanying convenience, to the neighborhood: One resident testified that he shopped at the "beautiful" Randalls store on Braker Lane and US183, and wished there were another closer to his central-city home.

But Braker and 183 is the last thing the Neighbors of Triangle Park, and the Austin City Council, want for the Triangle tract at Guadalupe and Lamar. Instead, they want development on a "human scale" that would complement the surrounding urban neighborhoods: In concrete terms, this means a more even mix of retail, residential, and office space, instead of an area dominated by large, chain, big box retail stores. It means a development that is pedestrian-friendly and provides easy access for bicyclists and riders of public transportation, instead of acres of parking spaces. And of course, it means a suitable amount of ever-sought-after green space.

Letter of the Law?

Put it in writing and make it so, say the state officials who may be called on to decide whether to override city council's Triangle veto. Because the Triangle land is owned by the state's Department of Mental Health and Retardation, the authority to reject or approve Cencor's request lies ultimately with a State Board of Review, chaired by General Land Office Commissioner Garry Mauro. Board members also include Mayor Kirk Watson, County Judge Bill Aleshire, an MHMR representative, and appointees of the Governor and Attorney General. As of Wednesday, the General Land Office had not received a request to convene the review board to consider whether to overturn the city's actions. While the review board consideration is not an automatic process, said GLO spokesman Jeff Long, the state fully expects the board to meet on this particular issue.

Steve Craddock, director of asset management for MHMR, said the Cencor project met Austin's codified requirements for such development, and that if the city wants to adopt a higher standard, it should do so formally. Craddock said the city needs a "true, bona fide, boundary-to-boundary comprehensive plan." If such a plan were in place, he said, developers and state officials would be aware of the city's wishes and "it would be up to the state to justify" overriding the community's decisions. As things are, he said, if the proposed development meets the city's legal requirements, the state should approve the deal.

Here's where that dusty old Austin Tomorrow Plan could come in handy. Though some criticized the Planning Commission of being disingenuous in citing the plan as a reason to turn down Cencor -- a first -- the city has demonstrated a renewed commitment to its principles. And in this case, codified standard or no, Cencor knew what the neighborhood's wishes were from the beginning. "All those hurdles they're going through now were identified up front," said Spencer Reid, Senior Deputy Commissioner of the state's General Land Office. He cited a letter distributed to developers with the original bid package for the Triangle, signed by Will Bozeman of the North University Neighborhood Association and Cecil Pennington of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, which outlined 156 "action point" community standards for the new development. Council and neighbors cited Cencor's failure to meet those standards as the basis of the zoning denial. Reid, however, notes that Cencor met some if not all of the criteria, and that a NUNA representative and Pennington both testified in support of the development. "We wouldn't have filed the plan with the city if we didn't think it was a good plan," Reid said. "The project has evolved with all of these [neighborhood] issues on the table." All told, Reid believes it was not the process itself that failed; rather, he said, the problem is with the city's lack of codified development standards.

When Mayor Watson takes the city's case to the state review board, he may or may not find an ally in Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire, who has yet to take a position on the Triangle. In a recent letter to Watson, however, he said he looked forward to working with the mayor "in the interest of our mutual constituents." Aleshire said he thought the land should be developed as if it were privately owned: The fact that the state was contracting with a private developer, for a profit, should not affect how the land is used.

The Brodie Buyout

"Our children and grandchildren will one day rise up and call this mayor and this council blessed."

Endorsements like that -- from Ellen Long, a Barton View neighborhood resident -- don't come along very often down at city council chambers, but last Thursday there were praises all around after the council approved the purchase of the Brodie tract in Southwest Austin. It was the first expenditure of the $65 million voters approved in the May 2 bond election for city land acquisition.

The proposed development of the tract by JPI -- the largest multifamily developer in town -- had been decried by neighbors and lamented by environmentalists as a threat to water quality at Barton Springs, and a blight on the ever-diminishing beauty of the landscape of green, rolling hills. Though the Brodie tract is not in the so-called hour-glass area identified by the city as the target area for Prop. 2 land purchases, it is adjacent to the Barton Creek Greenbelt, and rates number 5 on the list generated by city staff's matrix of factors determining what tracts should be purchased with the bond money. The short timetable for development of the tract moved it to the top of the priority list. By saving from development what Councilmember Beverly Griffith called "the most critical thousand acres between the county line and Barton Springs Pool," the city council is fulfilling its goals of protecting water quality, preserving environmentally sensitive land near downtown, and appeasing a good number of their constituents.

So why didn't more people know that the high-profile Brodie tract would be included among Prop. 2's land acquisitions?

Lots of folks, from regular voters to political insiders to members of the print media, have expressed surprise that the city was using Prop. 2 money to buy this tract. The Statesman reported the JPI purchase as a possibility, but the council is known for its happy press-conferencing of good news, and by most accounts, this deal was very good news. So why wasn't it pressed feverishly as a reason for voters to support Prop. 2?

Maybe it was the $65,000 per acre price tag, which brings the total purchase price for the 76 acres to just under $5 million. Despite Austin's continued boom times, there are still a lot of people complaining about bad city services,
inequality of investment in the east and west sides, etc. Perhaps the councilmembers feared that's exactly what people would do -- construe the council's focus on green space as a sign of misplaced priorities. But it's important to note that that's not generally how such policy transactions work. Even if the city hadn't bought out JPI, it wouldn't have meant that money would've been available for, say, the 11th and 12th street revitalization project. In fact, about $2 million of the money for the purchase came from water and wastewater funds reserved for the purpose of buying land that is critical to maintaining the quality of the city's water supply. The rest is coming from bonds that the voters themselves approved.

Despite all the confusion, the JPI deal may have been a simple case of perfect timing. Though members of the Barton View Neighborhood Association asked the city to look into buying the Brodie tract over a year ago, the city considered the cost prohibitive. When the bond issue came up this spring, JPI agreed to hold off on the development until the city held the election. If Prop. 2 had not passed, the bulldozing would likely have begun post-haste. "We kept the ball in the air long enough for the bond issue to come around," said Andrew Halbreich of the neighborhood association.

This Week in Council: More greenspace planning ahead, as councilmembers consider the Town Lake Comprehensive Plan -- a blueprint for creating a "cultural park" on Auditorium Shores.

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