Save Our Speck Alliance

Larry Speck is the main architect of the Hill Country Galleria. He's also a member of the Save Our Springs Alliance board, which opposes the Galleria. This is what you call, "walking the tightrope."

By all accounts, the Save Our Springs Alliance considered Larry Speck one of its most prized recruits when the outspoken architect agreed to join its board of directors not long ago. Now, SOS leaders are in the midst of a dilemma they never anticipated: Speck is the prime architect of the Hill Country Galleria -- a proposed $350 million development in the Barton Springs watershed which SOS vigorously opposes.

The planned retail, office, hotel, and cineplex project is being billed as a regional destination mall that would bring thousands of shoppers through the rural Village of Bee Cave, just west of Austin. The 114-acre project is proposed along Hwy. 71 at RM 620, a few hundred yards from Little Barton Creek. If things go as planned, the "new urban" outdoor mall would hold the distinction of being the largest shopping center in Central Texas, surpassing the size of Austin's Lakeline Mall.

Needless to say, Speck's affiliation with the project is causing a lot of heartburn among SOS leaders, whose reputations are not exactly built on compromise. The main problem with the project, says SOS Executive Director Bill Bunch, is not Speck's design (the outdoor mall adheres to the European sensibilities of a "town center"), but that the large-scale development will generate secondary growth and thousands of daily vehicle trips over the watershed, thus creating another "sprawl nightmare" in the Hill Country.

This week, the village's Board of Aldermen began wrapping up final negotiations with developer Chris Milam and landowner Robert Baldwin. As part of the deal, Milam agreed to reduce the size of his development, donate land to the city, and contribute funding to the Hill Country Conservancy for land acquisition; village officials, in turn, will offer a yet-to-be disclosed incentives package. (Neither Milam nor his spokesperson, Trey Salinas, could be reached for comment.) Additionally, a Baldwin settlement could put an end to city officials' fears of a big-box discount store on the property. The aldermen will vote on the proposal June 25, over the objections of SOS and residents of the nearby Lake Pointe subdivision, who have formed Families for a Safe Traffic Environment (F.A.S.T.) in response to the anticipated onslaught of traffic in the area. The group has also retained Tom Loeffler, a former GOP Congressman and former chair of UT Board of Regents, to help fight the development. (State Sen. Jeff Wentworth is an attorney in the Loeffler firm).

SOS is no stranger to land battles like this one, but Speck's role in the project has turned an otherwise routine assault into a delicate situation. "So far we've agreed to disagree that his presence on the board has not and will not hinder our opposition to the Hill Country Galleria," Bunch said. "This is a unique situation for us, and our real opposition [to the project] hasn't even cranked up yet -- there's more to come." (At press time, Speck had not returned a phone message left at his office at the Page Southerland Page architect firm).

Speck is one of Austin's most prominent architects, recognized for his work on the Convention Center and the Austin Bergstrom International Airport. But perhaps his most celebrated piece of work was his display of anger over the foiled Blanton Art Museum project, prompting his resignation as dean of the UT School of Architecture. In doing so, Speck lashed out at the UT Board of Regents (namely Rita Clements and now gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez) for meddling in the design work of the renowned Swiss firm of Herzon & deMeuron, which UT retained to design the new museum. Frustrated by the regents' tampering, the architects pulled out of the project.

Bunch says he was impressed with Speck's willingness to speak out against the regents' actions and to freely criticize the number of developments encroaching on environmentally sensitive land. "He had shown some real backbone on issues that we were in agreement on," Bunch said. And Speck's contributions to the board have been invaluable, given his stature in the community, Bunch added. "He has been making significant efforts to get us through to the people we need to be talking to," he said.

Pro and con Web sites are available for more detailed information: www.hillcountrygalleria.com and www.nohillcountrygalleria.com.

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