We Are the Champions
We Are the Champions
"I hope everyone feels that they won," said Planning Commissioner Betty Baker on August 31, after the commission finished its complicated parsing of the Champion tract in Northwest Austin. Judging from the looks on the faces of all concerned, though, "a lose-lose situation" might better describe this thorny zoning battle.The Champion family has for more than 100 years owned the 250 or so acres that surround the present-day intersection of RM 2222 and Loop 360. After years of discussions and wrangling, including a lawsuit against and settlement with the city in 1996 over watershed rules, sisters Josie Champion, Juanita Champion Meier, and Mary Roberson have finally brought forth for city approval their plans for multi-family developments, office buildings, restaurants, and retail on their land, which is broken into five sub-tracts. One of these, on the southeast corner of the intersection, has already been zoned GR (general retail, though it'll likely be a restaurant); zoning for the other four is what's currently at issue.
The scope of the Champions' plans, which the city estimates will generate between 11,000 and 14,000 vehicle trips per day through what is already a congested set of intersections, has appalled the 2222 Coalition of Neighborhood Associations, which represents neighborhood groups from Allandale all the way out to Lake Travis. The 2222 CONA notes that, according to Texas Dept. of Transportation (TxDOT) estimates, RM 2222 is already carrying its maximum capacity of just under 40,000 daily trips, and that projects already approved by the city but not yet built are expected to triple that load.
On the other hand, say the Champions, they've already paid $1 million in property taxes on their land since its 1980 annexation by the city because its valuation reflects its location at the axis of two major highways. They argue that the 1996 settlement allows them to build under less restrictive impervious-cover rules that presume maximum-intensity use of the land. The Champions also contend that it makes better sense to locate growth within the city limits, rather than further out on 2222, given that, in the words of their lawyer Michael Whelan, "it's foolish for anyone to say there won't be any growth west of Loop 360."
This was the gist of the initial city staff recommendation, which was to allow the proposed high-intensity development subject to an overall cap on vehicle trips. The recommendation also required the Champions to put up a share of the money for widening the affected intersections -- 2222 at City Park Road and Jester Blvd., 360 at Lakewood and Courtyard, and the 2222/360 interchange itself. The neighbors dismissed these provisions as inadequate and asked that the development be scaled back to generate half its anticipated traffic.
Back in July, when the Champions first came before the Planning Commission, after a marathon public hearing filled with aggrieved neighbors, the commission appointed a task force of its members to try to work out a compromise, without success. At the August 31 meeting, the commission ended up voting for the staff recommendation, with additional reductions in trips (of 10-15%) and slightly less intense zoning on the highest-intensity tracts within the overall Champion parcel.
These votes did not come easily, with commissioners Baker and Jim Robertson (at his first PC meeting) arguing the Champions' position, commissioner Jean Mather holding out for deeper cuts in traffic, and commissioners Gwen Webb and Ben Heimsath trying to broker a compromise position. Heimsath noted that "what's really the problem here is that for two decades we've done nothing to plan growth along 2222. And now everybody's the poorer for it."
These recommendations will go to City Council, probably near the end of September; expect that both the Champions and 2222 CONA will make a last stand before the council for their positions. According to their settlement, the Champions have until 2003 or 2006, depending on the parcel within their tract, to break ground.