Benign Growth?

The State of Affairs

Speaking of grandfathering, the political times couldn't be more right for a project like the Forum, as the city is eager to present itself to the Legislature as a cooperative player in the management of inevitable population growth and development. At stake is the content of the legislation that will be written to replace the infamously repealed SB 1704, which governed the regulations under which developers may develop their land. Good authority has it that the Austin legislative delegation informed city officials that the failure of the Forum would be the kiss of death for the city, and would trigger an unfavorable result to the 1704 quandary.

Unfavorable in this case would be a bill allowing developers to build under the environmental regulations that were in place when they originally submitted applications for their building permits in the pre-S.O.S. days. The implicit threat is that if Austin can't be reasonable, the Lege will teach us how -- and make it stick. Which is why environmental matriarch Mary Arnold urged the council last week to approve the Forum. "A no vote," she warned, "will be played in the wrong light at the Legislature."

The Forum notwithstanding, the city's lobby team has what it hopes is a trump card to protect the city from imminent legislative Austin-bashing. The recent "carefully negotiated compromise" between the Real Estate Council of Austin and the S.O.S. Alliance allowing for both land preservation and certain development in the Barton Springs watershed "is at least causing some confusion" among legislators who have not dismissed it out of hand as a meaningless document. RECA president David Armbrust -- who has more conservative credentials than most Austinites -- is telling members of the Lege that this is a workable deal.

John Hrncir of the city's legislative affairs office agrees. "I think had we denied the PUD, given the very low impervious cover on the project, that it would have had a serious negative effect on our efforts to retain our authority down at the Legislature," he said. Hrncir said the council's action "adds credibility to the city's efforts to make S.O.S. work."

Officials are hoping that approval of the mitigation policy will result in -- in the words of the Austin Business Journal -- "Guaranteed home rule. ... No more threats of legislative 'oversight.' If no one's fighting, there's no one for the Legislature to protect."

What the Neighbors Say

It may be workable politically, but is the Forum good for the neighborhoods that will live with it? Residents in the area are of mixed opinion, too, with cautious approval and optimism seeming the dominant feeling. Of neighborhood associations directly adjacent to the Forum, none oppose it, and many are downright boosterish in their approval, citing their long wait for such a retail project, and the generosity of developers in working to meet neighborhood needs. But Mary Kay Isaacs, president of the Oak Hill Alliance of Neighborhoods (OHAN), said the group has not been able to come to an agreement regarding the development, and has taken no official position on the issue. "It's a little bit of a mixed bag," she said, and the Circle C Neighborhood Association, a member of OHAN, is opposing the Forum over concerns about traffic.

Isaacs said she's unclear on why another shopping center anchored by a big-box home improvement store is needed in the area. "It's unbelievable how fast they're going in," she said, adding that there's "a lot of skepticism of the value of having it there at all."

But Isaacs added that, if the shopping center has to happen, the Forum developers are the ones to go with because of their willingness to provide mitigation land and traffic improvements: "All of the [traffic] improvements that are possible to make, with the exception of the MoPac flyover; they'll do them all. ... If it is going to be this scale, it's to the advantage of the region for someone to do it who can afford to do these traffic improvements."

Plans call for the Forum developers to mitigate traffic congestion, if only slightly, by adding and widening turn lanes at several intersections. On the city's letter-grading system for congested intersections, Wm. Cannon and MoPac will go from a failing grade to a "D" in the morning hours, and from a low D to to a high D in the afternoon and evening rush hours. The nearby Brodie Lane and William Cannon intersectionwill go from an F to "a slightly better F."

Philosophical View

Outside of a philosophical objection to this type and magnitude of development on the aquifer, there is little reason to oppose the Forum PUD. But the fact is, a philosophical objection to those things is what drives many supporters of the S.O.S. ordinance. Slusher has reportedly called the Forum PUD vote one of the most difficult decisions he's ever had to make, and with good reason: Though there are all sorts of common-sense reasons to approve the PUD zoning, the Forum is -- in spirit at least -- what the S.O.S. ordinance was all about preventing. And Slusher has been a believer in S.O.S., and the compact city concept, which the Forum also threatens, for a long while.

Map of the Forum mitigation plan showing environmentally sensitive locations

The Forum mitigation plan permits developement
in excess of S.O.S. impervious cover limitations
at one location (1), but preserves two other
environmentally sensitve locations (2 and 3)

The Forum and the Computer Sciences Corp. deal, approved by council last week, are two sides of the same growth-management coin. Both probably deserve approval (with the Forum being the closer call) but for almost opposite reasons. With CSC, the merits of the issue rightfully won the day. Despite the concerns discussed in last week's "Council Watch," the downtown development had all the elements this community has asked for: urban infill, downtown living space, and less suburban sprawl, especially in the Barton Springs Zone. It also gets a new City Hall built on Town Lake, something that Austinites have long desired. It was for these reasons that the CSC proposal won support from downtown business reps and environmentalists alike. The downsides were the unanswered questions, possible risks, and the concern that the excitement of doing a deal of this magnitude led to a too-hasty coronation of the plan.

With the Forum, the circumstances are inverted. "Process" and "public input" have been thoroughly respected. Relevant boards and commissions, including the city's Planning Commission and Environmental Board, have seen and approved the plan.

In many respects, some Smart Growthers, in their heart of hearts, are really anti-growthers. People (this reporter included) succumbed to the temptation to criticize the way a project like CSC was done because deep down, they would rather see downtown stay a little sleepy. Let the homeless, the day laborers, the Liberty Lunch contingent, the city employees and the politicos from the Capitol all mingle on the same block, and if a few bankers and other corporate types are thrown into the mix, hell, we'll let 'em stay.

Initially, that line of thinking seems like a good defense against the homogenization of Austin; it sounds something like this: "Let all the suburbs and big-box developments spread out into the suburbs, they can merge with San Marcos and Waco, for all I care. I'll just stay insulated from it all somewhere between Oltorf and 51st Street." But while that line of thinking may work for now, the denial of growth is dangerous for those both inside and outside the city center.

After all, the Forum may be a judicious concession to growth that, despite our wishes and recent efforts, has already occurred. Within three miles of the future Forum there are 60,000 people and two elementary schools. The area is not the pristine wilderness we wish it were. In the worst-case scenario, however, the Forum could turn into another Arboretum (though at less than two-thirds the size), which was on the leading edge of massive retail development in the "golden triangle" area up north where US 183, MoPac and Loop 360 converge. Many see that area as the epitome of what's wrong with New Austin -- along with Barton Creek Square Mall in southwest Austin -- where some still consider it politically incorrect to shop.

Now What?

What's next for development regulation in Austin? The Forum will begin its long journey from theory to reality. Austin's lobby team will try to persuade suspicious legislators to respect the city's growing maturity on land development issues. City staff will go back to work on the mitigation policy and direct their efforts toward a city land-use plan, which the council intends to have in place some time soon. Everyone will hope that the calculated risk of approving the Forum PUD was not a mistake. But mistake or not, the Forum spurred some honest, high-level discussion about how exactly to achieve the kind of city many of us want. It is already resulting in progress toward a mitigation policy, and if it hastens the advent of a long-overdue land-use plan, then that's all the better.

This Week in Council: Councilmembers Gus Garcia and Beverly Griffith will sponsor an ordinance calling for a 45-day moratorium on the permitting or construction of commercial or light industrial projects within the area of the East Austin overlay. Residents have complained to the council that the overlay, designed to end the approval of inappropriate industrial and commercial land uses on the Eastside, has been ineffective. The moratorium would hold up several projects that have alarmed some Eastsiders while they lobby the council for a resolution.

This week also marks the return of the thorny EMS issue, discussing the approval of a Second Interlocal Cooperation Agreement, in which Travis County would pay Austin just under $1million for EMS service outside city limits. The council will likely approve the Liberty Lunch relocation plan, which will include a $600,000 loan to build a new club on Red River, and the waiver of up to $10,000 toward the building permit, site plan, and variance fees.

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Forum Pud, Smart Growth, Barton Springs Watershed, Aquifer, Water Quality, Save Our Springs Alliance, S.o.s., Bill Bunch, Daryl Slusher, Bill Spelman, Computer Sciences Corp.

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