An UnStratusfactory Process
Stratus plan heads back to the City Council for round two
If things go as planned, tonight's City Council hearing on a proposed Stratus Properties development could be a real doozy. The latest controversy in the Stratus story centers on the council's decision to close the public hearing to new speakers. Only the remaining 104 people who had signed up to speak June 27 will be allowed to address the council tonight (Thursday). The hearing starts at 5:45pm in the Hancock Building of the Lower Colorado River Authority headquarters, 3700 Lake Austin Blvd.
Despite council's efforts to shave several hours off the public process, opponents of the Stratus proposal are trying to spur an attendance record that surpasses the 700-plus turnout of June 27. Some are also expected to stage attention-getting protests in front of the LCRA building, while others will attempt to show videotaped testimony of speakers who weren't able to attend the last hearing.
The decision to close the hearing is somewhat unusual, given the complex nature of a case that was still undergoing noteworthy changes this week -- most often at the behest of Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman and Council Member Daryl Slusher. On that front, Slusher said Stratus has agreed to scratch plans to build a gas station at Slaughter Lane and South Mopac, in the sensitive recharge area of the Edwards Aquifer. Stratus is also willing to negotiate the creation of a funding stream for city land acquisitions, he said. Meanwhile, Goodman has Stratus agreeing to a still-to-be-negotiated funding mechanism for monitoring and maintaining water-quality controls.
The City Council, at any rate, is determined to forge ahead and cast at least one of three required votes on the proposal at tonight's meeting. The votes would cover a settlement agreement and a series of zoning changes. A third and final vote, scheduled July 18, would cap two years of wrangling over how Stratus will develop 1,253 acres across the aquifer.
Mayor Gus Garcia says he won't be surprised by whatever transpires this evening. "There will be challenges, more than likely," he observed of the imposed restrictions. "But I have to allow time for the council to deliberate. This is a tough issue ... [it's] been on the grill for a long time, and we need to be judicious in making our decision. My position is that I would rather decide this in City Council chambers than in court."
Assuming that all 104 remaining speakers will provide testimony, tonight's hearing could span well into the night, followed by equally lengthy deliberations. Early indications point to the council's approval of the deal, although opponents hope they can successfully push for a delay, pending a comprehensive neighborhood and transportation study of Southwest Austin.
Still, the prevailing attitude at City Hall is that the Stratus deal has been on the table for two years and it's high time the council take action and move on to other pressing business. While the Stratus plan has not gained widespread support from the green community, the proposal does carry the backing of a few prominent community leaders. Longtime environmentalist George Cofer supports the plan and is urging council to give the deal its blessing. (Cofer stresses that his endorsement is independent of his executive director's position with the Hill Country Conservancy.) Additionally, Wildflower Center Director Robert Breunig has thrown his support behind the deal.
At the same time, some neighborhood group leaders argue that because they only learned of the Stratus proposal seven weeks ago, they should have the same negotiating power given Cofer, Breunig, and other stakeholders who walked away from the table satisfied. The politically savvy Circle C Homeowners Association, for example, won a number of concessions and ultimately gave Stratus its endorsement.
Other neighborhood associations weren't as fortunate. Paul Tesluk of the New Villages at Western Oaks NA shared his observations with the council: "Those that were involved in the early negotiations were successful in moving density and impervious cover away from their areas and placing it on the door step of those that were not invited [to negotiate]." And while other stakeholders secured property or additional setbacks, Tesluk continued, "the only donation to our neighborhood [was] a gas station and strip centers. It is obvious that those invited early to the negotiation table have gotten much, and we are left to fight over the scraps."
Over the course of the city's talks with Stratus, the developer agreed to whittle the size and scope of its project (in exchange for $15 million in subsidies), and has agreed to use native landscaping and environmentally friendly building materials in developing 1 million square feet of commercial space and 1,730 residences. In addition, the developer is ceding five tracts of open space to the city and the Wildflower Center.
At press time, a coalition of Southwest Austin neighborhood groups was considering offering an alternative proposal to entice Stratus back to the table.