Corner to Corner
Swelling Up: The Long, Winding, and Ever-Growing Road
You think it's hard to get down RM 2222 now? Imagine what it was like to traverse today's Northwest Austin back in 1866, when the Champion family first acquired 240 acres of Bull Creek bottomland and the overlooking bluff. Getting into Austin was an all-day affair, recounts Juanita Champion Meier, whose grandfather first homesteaded the land. "He would have to ride on horseback down across the mouth of Bull Creek, then around the bottom of Mount Bonnell toward Laguna Gloria, and then across into town. There was nothing out there but a couple of artesian wells, cedar choppers, and people raising goats." There's still nothing out on most of the Champion tract, with two big exceptions -- RM 2222 and Loop 360 (Capital of Texas Highway), which were driven through the middle of the old homestead during the early days of Austin's great western land rush. Today, the Champion land -- which covers all four corners of the 2222/360 interchange, east to Bull Creek and west to Jester Boulevard -- is flanked by office complexes and high-dollar subdivisions and surrounds one of Central Texas' busiest highway intersections. And now the Champion granddaughters -- Juanita Meier, Josie Champion, and Mary Roberson -- want their slice of boomtown pie.
But is it too late? When you look at the stuff that's been built all around the Champions, it's hard to be shocked at their proposed development, which includes multi-family units, office buildings, retail and restaurants, and homes for each of the sisters at the top of the hill. But therein lies the problem. There is all this other stuff along 2222, up and down 360, and on the nearby side streets and corridors, and as a result the Northwest Corridor -- especially 2222 itself -- has become yet another Central Texas traffic nightmare.
And now, because of the growth parade that the Champions want to join, there are actual neighborhoods all along 2222, and they are mad and not to be trifled with. The 2222 Coalition of Neighborhood Associations (CONA), which represents neighbor and homeowner groups all the way from Allandale to Volente, has for a few years now made itself at home before Planning Commission and City Council, arguing that the horrid 2222 traffic situation means the city must limit growth along the corridor.
So now here we are, with the Champions' zoning approved -- but with conditions and limits to appease the neighbors -- by the Planning Commission at the end of August, on its way to council for further sausage-making and compromise that will leave nobody very satisfied. Along the way, in the classic ad hoc manner Austin is supposed to have abandoned, we'll inadvertently make decisions and set precedents about how important traffic really is to us, about where the urban core really begins, and about the level of control and entitlement either landowners or neighbors really have. In the end, even though the Champions want to build more of the same, their case may instead create something new.
After years of fussing with the likes of Gary Bradley, Bill Pohl, and Jim Bob Moffett -- cartoon characters sent over from Developer Central -- the Champion sisters, who look more like organ-playing church ladies than hardball-playing land barons, are almost refreshing. It's one thing to spit on out-of-town speculators; it's quite another to fight original owners who have waited more than 130 years to build out their land. "Now that it's where everyone wants to live," says Juanita Meier, "we feel we should be entitled to the rewards."
Before Planning Commission, Josie Champion, who's done most all of the talking for the sisters over the years, noted that, since the tract was annexed to the city in 1980, the Champions have paid $1 million in property taxes. "We think what we're asking for is good, logical, and economically feasible," she told the divided commission and the almost uniformly hostile audience. "This intersection demands excellence, and we have tried to bring excellence to it."
What they're asking for may not be excellent, but it is certainly grand. The Champion "tract" is really five tracts, divided by 2222, 360, and City Park Road. Tract 4 has already been zoned GR ("community commercial") and is slated for a 6,000-square-foot "high turnover" restaurant. The others, which total 227 acres, are at issue in the current case. The all-important traffic impact analysis (TIA) for the tracts is based on the three sisters' homes, 11 other single-family homes, a 350,000-square-foot office building, 570 apartments, a 60,000-square-foot shopping center, two more 6,000-square-foot restaurants, and another 30,000-square-foot office.
Because so much of the Champion tract is steeply sloped, this development would have to be clustered in a way that will make it look more dense 'n' intense than it really is. Which is a lot less dense or intense than one would normally see at the intersection of two state highways; the junction of RR 620 and US 183, which in roadway terms is comparable, is home to many times more square feet of commercial development, including Lakeline Mall. "If ever a piece of land has been studied, it's ours," Josie Champion told the Planning Commission. "All the ordinances that have applied to our land" -- over the years, there have been at least six -- "have said that this property is appropriate for high-intensity development."
Now, the Champions don't have to worry about some of those ordinances, because back in 1993, after the passage of the Bull Creek Ordinance restricting impervious cover in that watershed, the sisters took the city to court. (They have very good and powerful lawyers, Terry Bray and Michael Whellan from Graves, Dougherty, Hearon, and Moody.) The case was settled in 1996, allowing the sisters to develop under 1970s-era ordinances if they act before either 2003 or 2006, depending on the section of the tract. The sisters now argue that even though their deal didn't cover zoning, they made no secret at the time of their desire to develop at the scale they now propose. "We worked with the city in good faith," said Josie Champion, "and we think our agreement has meaning."
The neighbors allied in 2222 CONA -- which likewise has a lawyer, Jim Cousar of Thompson and Knight, who knows his way around the land code -- are quite familiar with the terms of the Champion settlement, and they point to Part IV of City Ordinance 96-0613-J, which codified the agreement: "The approval of this special exception does not constitute approval of any development permit, nor does it constitute a commitment to any specified land use (or) intensity of land use."
Notes Cousar, "The settlement just gives them the right to develop under old ordinances, not an entitlement to specific zoning. They seem to be arguing that there's some sort of secret understanding that what was meant was an entitlement to GR and MF-4 and a certain number of vehicle trips per day. And it would be illegal for the city to engage in legislative action by contract via a settlement."
The neighbors of 2222 CONA are not unconcerned with the water-quality issues that the Champions finessed through their settlement; they argue that Bull Creek and West Bull Creek (the Champions' land straddles both watersheds) supply, at certain times of the year, up to 50% of our drinking water supply. But they are far more focused on the number of trips per day -- between 11,000 and 14,000, depending on your assumptions -- that the Champions' TIA shows being generated by their plans. The coalition wants the city to zone the Champion land to allow half that many cars on the road.
To the neighbors, this represents a big compromise, since -- as they have become quite practiced at pointing out -- RM 2222 will by the end of this year be carrying as many cars (about 40,000) as it was designed to handle. If all the other projects that have already been approved by the city are built out, 2222 will be handling three times its design capacity. Says 2222 CONA leader James Baker, "For me to go back to my constituents and say we support a project that generates 20% of all the traffic the highway can bear -- they're not going to accept it. But we know that the Champions want to develop their property, and they want to get the most value from their property. But the corridor has to live with it."
When city development staff recommended the Champions' zoning for approval, they added conditions to limit vehicle trips so that they don't exceed the TIA estimate. But the city's standard procedure is to look not at the overall roadway, but at key intersections and (later, in the site plan review process) driveways, because that's where traffic gets really backed up. Right now, the five key crossings around the Champion tract range from not bad (City Park Road and 2222) to terrible (Loop 360 and Lakewood Drive). So the Champions have agreed to put up cash -- "posting fiscal," in city parlance -- for intersection improvements, based on their projected share of traffic going through the lights, a total of just over $132,000.
This amount seems laughably small to the neighbors; as Baker notes, "the only purpose of the [traffic] improvements is to enable the Champions' development, so why should the taxpayers pay 80% or 90% of the cost?" The 2222 CONA has found more support for its cause from TxDOT than neighbors usually do. The state has already made plain that it doesn't have the money to pay the rest of the tab for these improvements, and that it would be loath to support the Champions unless all of RM 2222 were widened to six lanes from Jester Boulevard to Lakewood Drive. And widening 2222 -- which was designed to be a four-lane limited-access parkway, not a highway -- is not part of Austin's current regional transportation plan, which is supposed to guide road spending all the way through 2020.
In any event, even if RM 2222 could be widened, at great expense, for this one stretch, it would still narrow back down to the four winding lanes, squeezed along the edge of a cliff, that run between 360 and MoPac -- unless hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation funding fall from the sky. (That's not to mention the environmental issues; since the Bull Creek corridor is full of vireos and warblers, any 2222 project would have to be approved by the newly aggressive U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.) "What's inescapable is that 2222 is already a highly engineered road [that] funnels all traffic from the Bull Creek valley into Austin," says Jim Cousar. "I suppose we could talk about hydrofoils on Lake Austin or personal jet-copters as alternatives, but for now the only way to make 2222 work is a supply-side solution -- limit the number of cars on it."
To the neighbors, the only way to limit cars is to limit growth, and the only way to do that is to tell each Josie Champion that comes along that sorry, there's no more room on the asphalt. "The case-by-case approach is the only really effective tool," says Cousar. "It seems harsh, but only if you take prior levels of development at places like Lakeline Mall as being the norm for this corridor."
Where to Draw the Line
Says Baker, "There are [planning] commissioners who construe limits to the Champion project as punishment. You can't say that because someone got a project built 15 years ago, that everyone should get the same bite." As it turned out, the commission was at somewhat of a loss; even though both state law and city codes allow zoning cases to be decided on traffic concerns, Austin has never made a habit of telling applicants with otherwise acceptable projects that they can't build because of the traffic.
For the most part, what the Planning Commission sent forth to council was what the Champions originally proposed, with the minor conditions suggested by city staff, and with additional caps limiting traffic to 10% or 12.5% less (depending on the section of the tract) than the TIA proposed. The city has grown fond of slapping these arbitrary caps -- we don't care how you cut traffic, just do it -- on projects, and they often amount to planning voodoo. (The controversial Dell Jewish Community Campus case turned on the same phantom traffic limits.)
A more honest approach is to simply zone the property for less intense uses, and with the largest (in acreage) single subsection of the tract -- the multi-family portion -- this is what the commission recommended. But considering that the Planning Commission had been facing the Champions for months, and even staged a special mediation between them and 2222 CONA (which went nowhere), it was surprising to see the PC making up zoning for the Champion tract on the spot, on the dais, firmly by the seat of its collective pants, and animated by the aim to appease both sides, rather than by any discernible vision. "If I had my druthers, we would just go with the staff recommendation," noted Commissioner Betty Baker, "but I know we need to compromise on traffic."
A surprising exception was brand-new PC-er Jim Robertson, best known in civic circles for chairing the Mueller redevelopment advisory group, who noted that "in the abstract, this location would require this kind of density to meet Smart Growth objectives." He also tactfully expressed an inescapable truth about the neighbors -- "I have concerns about people who have chosen to live farther from the city center acquiring an entitlement to a certain level of service." In other words, people like James Baker -- who lives all the way out in River Place, outside the city limits -- cannot roll up RM 2222 behind them.
Well, gosh, maybe that Robertson guy -- a central-city architect, appointed to the PC by Bill Spelman, the City Council's designated Northwest Austin growth hawk -- has a point, obscured by the widespread politicization of the neighborhoods. As Champion lawyer Michael Whellan put it, "It's foolish to say growth won't happen west of Loop 360. We can either get it here -- at a close-in intersection, with restrictions and conditions, at an appropriate Smart Growth density, and inside the city limits -- or we can watch it sprawl out into the sunset."
So both the Champions and 2222 CONA are right, and wrong, and maybe it's time to try something else -- like a regional plan for managing growth along the Bull Creek corridor. (What a concept!) This has been endorsed in principle by both sides here, and by other developers who have felt the wrath of 2222 CONA. Cousar notes that back in the day, then-council member Mark Rose passed the Northwest Ordinance, which aimed to ration 2222's trips-per-day capacity out to developers along the corridor. "But then the bust happened," says Cousar, "and the city's objective became to promote growth rather than to limit it." Many of those already-approved but unbuilt 2222 projects got their city blessings during the darkest days of the bust.
If the City Council decides to take a stand one way or the other on the Champion tract, it will inevitably be creating policy that could serve as a starting point for a planning process. Either traffic matters or it doesn't; either density is allowed outside the urban core or it's not; either neighbors get regional veto power or they don't. However, if the council echoes the PC's watery let's-please-everyone approach, we will be in exactly the same place when the next Josie Champion comes along. "Everything we're dealing with now is the product, or by-product, of one failed policy after another in the area," says Planning Commissioner Ben Heimsath. "It's a lose-lose situation, and whether it's approved or denied, we're not doing any real "planning.'"