SOS vs. AMD has the battle to protect the aquifer reached a turning point?
Locals call it "The Y": the congested intersection in Oak Hill where Highway 71 branches off from 290 West and heads northwest, toward Lake Travis. Coming off the sleek, elevated 290/71 freeway that leads southwest from Austin, drivers pass some dismal, part-vacant strip malls and several hundred yards of bare concrete pads where businesses with thanks to the same semifinished freeway used to stand. Then comes the Y itself, which features more strip malls. When Oak Hill was a small town outside Austin, this was the main commercial drag. Now, many of the area's 70,000 residents do the bulk of their shopping up the road in Austin, so folks aren't quite sure what it is. They're even less sure what it might become.
On a recent afternoon, Oak Hill residents jammed the 10th-floor faculty lounge of the ACC Pinnacle campus, the sleek black monolith that towers over Oak Hill like a toothpick sticking out of the martini glass of the Y. They had come for a Texas Department of Transportation open house to share the agency's plans to expand highways 290 and 71. First drafted in the 1980s, the plans feature a tangle of flyovers and frontage roads to make transportation engineers drool. They also feature toll roads. Grumbling and whispering to each other, the Oak Hillians crowded around tables of color-coded maps showing yellow toll roads, green frontage roads, and a few bits of purple indicating access points for existing neighborhoods and shops. As they traced their fingers over future routes home and pondered the change on the horizon, many looked worried.
Oak Hill has another potentially major change in its future. In April, Advanced Micro Devices announced its intention to move to a site about a mile northeast of the Y the Lantana Tract on the corner of Southwest Parkway and William Cannon, just up the road from the former Motorola campus that now houses Freescale. The tract indeed, all of Oak Hill is in the Barton Springs watershed. This makes the whole area an environmentally poor place for development: All the crud that washes off the yards and roads and driveways, all the motor oil and gas and lawn chemicals and other household goo, all that junk washes into streams that feed the Edwards Aquifer. Because about 50,000 Austinites drink that water, and because it feeds the beloved Barton Springs pool, polluting the aquifer has long been the gravest environmental sin an Austinite could commit.
The environmental community is taking AMD's announcement as a slap in the face. Keeping major employers off the watershed has been one of the most consistent and consistently successful fronts in the battle to protect the Edwards. Still hoping to convince AMD to move, these groups say the company is ignoring and insulting this community history, and wreaking havoc on the aquifer's future.
There's another history that can't be ignored, however. Despite decades of effort to steer development away from the watershed, the people came anyway. Even as the Southwest has swelled, the "desired development zone" on the city's easternmost fringe sits mostly empty, waiting for the housing and retail boom to join employers that have heeded the public call and located there. It's not too late to make the desired development zone desirable the new Highway 130 in eastern Travis County provides great opportunity to do just that. But Oak Hillians know their area is already desirable; once those yellow and green stripes on the TxDOT maps are rewritten in concrete, it will become only more so. Many now say that if Oak Hill is to be something other than a wide spot on the toll road to even farther-flung suburbs, something has to happen. That something, they say, starts with welcoming AMD. As the past and the future converge in Oak Hill, the rest of Austin will face some tough questions about how to balance them atop a still-sensitive aquifer.
At the Y Bar & Grill on Highway 71 on a recent weekday evening, a group of besuited and becoiffed professionals munched from little plates of chips and queso and schmoozed. The occasion was the Oak Hill Business and Professionals Association mixer to "Welcome AMD to Oak Hill." Buttons, yard signs, and bumper stickers declaring as much were in heavy circulation. The company, in the persons of its ample communications staff, was well represented.
Ice clinked in glasses, people shook hands, the overall mood was triumphant. A friendly gentleman finishing off what was clearly not his first margarita of the afternoon recounted a conversation he had had with someone who complained that AMD would pollute Barton Springs.
"I said, 'What do you like to do at Barton Springs?' He said, 'Swim.' I said, 'Well then, you're the one polluting the water.'" He described the lotions and ointments and other pollutants streaming off the swimmer's body as he splashed through the water. "Multiply that by how many kids who go down there every summer?" He made a face of amused disgust, and then described how without major employers, the area would start to attract residents who are "lesser quality, incomewise." That unwashed tide would inevitably drive down housing prices, which would slash property tax revenues, which would mean less city services for everybody. He polished off his margarita with a final satisfied slurp.
As Margarita Guy cheerfully fulfilled every enviro's stereotype about pave-the-planet suburbanites, AMD spokesman Travis Bullard tried heroically to buffer what is generally known in the biz as a "public relations disaster" by finding clever ways to remind the man that he was talking to a reporter. Bullard has had better luck with communication control in the past. For the last several months, he's been selling AMD's message that the move to Lantana is environmentally sensitive. It goes like this: 31% of AMD's employees live in the southwest, so moving to Lantana will save 10,000 commute miles a day. (AMD can point to a history of promoting alternative transportation, such as coming in second in a citywide "Commute Solutions" contest last fall, as evidence that its environmental consciousness was not born at the same time as its plans to move southwest.) Plus, because the Lantana Tract is already zoned for business, there is no question of if Lantana would be developed only when and AMD would do it cleaner and greener than anyone else. How's that? Well, the land's entitlements allow for nearly 40% impervious cover, but AMD would voluntarily develop to only 31%. And the whole dang thing would be green-built. And they'd give $5 million in mitigation funds to buy open space.
The Statesman's editorial page, at least, thinks that all sounds peachy, but enviros aren't buying it. First, the Lantana tract is grandfathered out of current Save Our Springs requirements the impervious cover of a nongrandfathered tract would max out at 25%, not 31%. And even if their commutes are shorter, those 2,000 employees' cars will still dump plenty of crap onto the pavement beneath them to wash straight into the water.
Above all, no matter how green AMD were to build the site, environmentalists would still object, citing the same argument that has guided decades of urban planning: Major employers drive growth. When AMD was in East Austin, employees wanting that sexy southwest Austin glamour could buy homes in Circle C and still drive a manageable 10 or so miles to work. Going much farther out, however, would soon get unmanageable. Once AMD is on the southwest fringe, though, a move way out into the Hill Country will easily become a faster commute, even if it's farther, and one that breezes by rolling hills rather than crawling past strip malls. At least, until everybody else shows up. Then, other employers wanting to move onto the watershed could repeat AMD's argument that their employees are "already there" except then, the longstanding taboo will have been broken.
"If AMD gets to break the code, what's to stop the domino effect with other companies that have wanted to move to the Southwest but haven't?" asked longtime activist Robin Rather. "Then everything we've tried to do to protect the aquifer in the past decades is, once and for all, over."
The Welcoming Party
The taboo itself doesn't hold everywhere in Austin, however. In addition to OHBPA, AMD's move is supported by the Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods, an umbrella group for 17 southwest Austin subdivisions. At the OHBPA mixer, OHAN President Bruce Perrin was bopping around giddily in his baby-blue OHAN polo shirt. The secondary development that enviros fear, rather than being a drawback, is precisely why Perrin welcomes AMD to Oak Hill.
"We are a gridlocked community, and one of the big reasons is we don't have any significant local employment. That forces us to get in our cars and drive across town," he said. "You've got the collateral problems related to major employers because we have a lack of goods and services providers. I challenge you to find a sit-down restaurant in Oak Hill."
Of course, the environmental response is, if you wanted sit-down restaurants, why the heck did you move to the urban fringe? Indeed, that's exactly the "thin edge of the wedge" phenomenon enviros fear first people just want a peaceful country home ... then they just want a grocery store that isn't so far ... and then a restaurant ... and then come more houses, followed by the traffic jams, and then you have to move even farther west to enjoy that fine country living ...
Perrin insists, however, that ignoring growth in the Southwest won't make it go away. "The argument is, 'You chumps made your own bed, now shut up and lie in it,'" he said. "Is that really what's best for the aquifer?" He points to LCRA plans for water and the TxDOT plans to build highways better suited to ushering people to and from more distant suburbs than providing local transportation to Oak Hill residents. If those highways aren't going to become "another Highway 183 North" (the jammed-up commercial strip that snakes through the subdivisions of northwest Austin), OHAN needs to take control of its future. Welcoming AMD, Perrin says, is only the first step in a much larger plan.
People, Pods, and Visions
There is, in fact, a sit-down restaurant in Oak Hill. It's called the Signature Cafe. Its tiny patio a cheery place with potted greenery and tiki lamps is tucked in the corner of the somewhat less cheery Oak Hill Plaza parking lot. The Plaza is bounded on the northeast by Highway 71, and on the south by Highway 290; if the Y were indeed a martini glass, the plaza would be olives. The center is anchored by an Albertsons, but most of its other tenants are the nail salons, travel agencies, and liquor stores typical of a not-too-profitable strip mall.
The Signature Cafe is where David Richardson wanted to show me his maps. Richardson is OHAN's crazy dreamer, the man with the plan for Oak Hill. He agrees with Perrin that since the people are already here, short trips over the aquifer are less polluting than long ones, and so he would welcome even more employers in Oak Hill. He also sees AMD as the thin edge of a very different wedge than what center-city environmentalists might envision.
Richardson picks a splinter out of his palm left over from his day's work as a carpenter unrolls his many maps of Oak Hill, and starts talking. When he looks out at the asphalt of the Oak Hill Plaza, he sees instead the site of a future "Downtown Oak Hill" connected to the promised CapMetro park and ride. This would be no strip-mall city, but a vertical mixed-use "town center" connected to the surrounding neighborhoods with hike-and-bike paths. It would be a pleasant place for people to relax, buy an ice cream, pick up their dry cleaning, and run into their neighbors on their short commute home from AMD or between getting off the bus from Downtown and into their cars. (In his ultimate vision, the transit for the masses wouldn't be buses but "personal rapid transit" a Jetsons-esque technology that involves individual transit pods zipping around elevated monorails. PRT does exist, but in only a handful of early-stage projects worldwide, and Richardson freely admits his vision is very long-term.) Pods or no pods, though, Richardson says a town center is the only way to make mass transit viable. "You have to have services and amenities to make mass transit the transit of choice, not something you use when you have no other option," he says.
In many ways, Richardson sounds (and, in his T-shirt and salt-and-pepper goatee, looks) like a middle-aged hippieus americanus from Travis Heights. Suburbs are isolating, he says. Long commutes are alienating. Gated communities breed not safety, but violence, and those 5,000-square-foot houses he helps build are excessive anyway. As he talks, a nearby family of four eyes his maps, and finally asks what's up. Soon the whole Foster family, owners of the Foster Family Dental Center on the 290/71 frontage road, are gathered around the maps listening with interest to Richardson's plans.
"So you're going to try to help us rebuild our community?" asks Joan Foster, looking intensely at Richardson. She is definitely ready to listen. The 290/71 highway has "wiped out" many businesses; the ones that are left are "scared." "Oak Hill is rapidly disappearing," she says. "That's why it's been so important to get AMD to come out here."
Richardson explains that the plan is still very new and very tentative, and that he has yet to shop it around to his neighbors. "I want to know how people respond to this idea of having a town center and parks and something very different than what's here today," he says. "I want to see if it resonates with them."
Hands in his pockets, Mike Foster leans back on his heels. "The problem I see," he laments, "is that [the SOS ordinance] is so anti-everything."
"We have to work with that community," Richardson answers. "But I think there are a number of methods at our disposal."
The Invisible Hand
The SOS Ordinance would indeed be anti-town center that 25% impervious cover precludes density, by intent. And those who carry its banner reiterate the same argument every time a school or road or anything is proposed in the watershed that however laudable may be the goal of serving people already there, it has the definitely-not-laudable side effect of enticing more people to arrive behind it.
Richardson agrees with Perrin that the forces pushing development the highways, the water are out of Oak Hill's control. They're even out of Austin's control. "It's a shame, but it's facts on the ground, so I think it's better to reduce the number of miles people travel by providing them commercial services," he said. "Getting cars off the road is the only way to allow the projected population we're going to get out here without screwing everything up."
Mayor Will Wynn, who says he spent "months" trying to convince AMD to choose a different location including offering incentives that would zero out the price difference between a Downtown location and the cheaper Southwest plans says that the city should now make the best of the situation. He also remains coy as to why the public wasn't also invited into AMD's analysis until it was announced as a done deal. He believes that an Oak Hill town center would be consistent with the Envision Central Texas model of multiple transit nodes connected by mass transit, and a "jobs/housing balance" that has people living close to work.
"AMD could actually help the Oak Hill area," Wynn said. "It could give the Oak Hill area the impetus to somewhat redefine that spot of town. It could be an example of a redefined, more mixed-use, more holistically balanced node or core in the city."
Doing so in Oak Hill, however, would require straying from a strict application of the SOS ordinance, which requires all redevelopment to meet current density limits, regardless of how much pavement was there in the first place. Wynn's not the only one who wonders if the current emphasis on tract-by-tract impervious cover is the best tool for protecting the environment if by that we mean not only water quality, but preserving as much undeveloped Hill Country as possible. After all, "low-density development" the only kind of development allowed under SOS also happens to be a synonym for "sprawl." Those willing to admit that some kind of development is virtually assured in the Hill Country think that's not a particularly palatable shape for it. Newly elected City Council Member Lee Leffingwell, for example, believes development doesn't belong in the Barton Springs watershed, but also believes we should plan as if the development is coming. "What's really needed," he says, "is to take a look at what parcels are available to be developed under which water quality regulations, and see what the Barton Springs zone would look like if everything were built out now in accordance with existing regulations." Part of that process means considering the value of well-planned high-density nodes. The Southwest Regional Water Quality Protection Plan, developed by stakeholders from southwest Austin to Dripping Springs, agrees. In the plan, cores of density will be offset by large patches of open space so that the watershed as a whole would ultimately have 10% to 15% impervious cover, even if individual parcels have much more. If that becomes the goal, major employers with the bank accounts to write fat mitigation checks like AMD's $5 million might start to look pretty darn appealing.
Environmentalists say that's a devil's bargain that in the end would be self-defeating. The only way to preserve the Hill Country, they insist, is by buying it outright or convincing landowners to grant conservation easements through which landowners keep their land, but agree not to develop it in exchange for either direct payments or tax benefits. Allowing AMD to locate in the Southwest let alone a town center or additional employers would inevitably drive up real estate prices, making them less affordable for public purchase. Plus, it's not as if every Hill Country landowner is ready to sell or preserve her land right this minute if it looks like heavier development is coming, it's likely many will hold off, and instead wait for the development wave to hit their patch of paradise and wash them to even greater riches. So resisting development is in part also a strategy to keep prices as low as possible, so that when public dollars are available to purchase open space, those dollars will buy as much as possible.
"It's a race, is what it is," said Bill Bunch of Save Our Springs Alliance. "It's slowing down the market and the development pressure to give us time" to find money and sellers. Two possible sources of funds are the bond packages the city and county plan to put before voters in the next year and a half; SOSA has also announced its intention to file suit against TxDOT and other road-planning entities, seeking open space funds to mitigate the 290 expansion.
SOSA doesn't deny that the areas of Oak Hill that are already developed could someday make a fine town center. But if the goal is to protect Oak Hill from pass-through traffic from farther-flung suburbs, the group argues that focusing on land acquisition without the help of major employers is a safer strategy. Otherwise, if AMD and a nifty new town center spark further development while making it too expensive to buy much in the way of parkland, Oak Hill could end up with a much worse mess especially if the theory that density will propel suburbanites into a new romance with mass transit fails to come true. "A plan for a downtown Oak Hill in the absence of major protections further out could really backfire on them," said SOSA's Colin Clark.
In addition to finding parkland in the West, environmentalists still hope to spur development including the new AMD campus in the East. Trouble is, you can't have a node without people, and so far, white-collar tech workers have shown a distinct aversion to living near the employers stretched along the highways on the far-eastern edge of Austin. Derek Silva of NAI Commercial Industrial Properties Co., a broker of commercial properties, said that in all the time that Austin has been encouraging employers east, the only employer to spark a housing boom was Dell, with its 17,000 employees. "Usually office buildings follow the rooftops," he said.
What this says to environmentalist Robin Rather is that the city hasn't done enough to make the far Eastside of town competitive with the west. "What executives are telling us is, 'Thanks, but your desired development zone isn't very desirable,'" she said. She says that if the city figures out a way to surround far East Austin employers with golf courses, four-star hotels, and stellar schools (ones presumably with the economically homogenous populations that affluent school-shoppers typically use to gauge school quality), the executive home-shoppers will follow. Construction on State Highway 130 in eastern Travis County does provide an opportunity to make such investments. Developer Pete Dwyer, for example, has reserved a hilltop site in a planned mixed-use development near Manor for the campus of a major employer. He has the same hopes for Manor that OHAN has for Oak Hill a town center connected to Downtown with commuter rail. (Dwyer made it known to AMD that he would give them an extremely favorable price on the deal rumor has it something along the lines of "free" but the company passed. Then again, it's hard to see how thousands of employees commuting from southern Austin to a site 15 miles northeast of downtown would really be a wise environmental strategy.)
Still, as the bulldozers start pushing around East Austin dirt, it's hard to imagine the southwest bulldozers waiting for them to finish. About 35% of Oak Hill, roughly 69 square miles, remains undeveloped. As Austin ponders the future of that land, the questions loom whether a core/open space plan could do as much to protect the water and more to protect the air and open space as a continued insistance on low density alone.
No one cares more about those questions than the people who live in Oak Hill, who nervously ponder the changes looming for the area. Eighteen-year Oak Hill resident Becky Halpin, who with her long hair and blue jeans would look right at home at the Kerrville Folk Festival, likes the idea of a town center. She'd like it to have room for horseshoes, or badminton. But she doesn't see any reason why major employers including AMD should be part of the equation. "They say half the employees are already here, but there's no sense bringing the other half," Halpin said. "Then we'd have all of them."
But beyond questions of AMD, or even a town center, her main worry is TxDOT, who she believes hasn't done enough to take community concerns into account. "We are a real community, and we deserve real planning," she said.
The Next Wave
Halpin isn't alone in her fears. The people who crammed the TxDOT open house in the Pinnacle's top-floor lounge were clearly not there for the panoramic view of the land beneath. They were worried about the roads, the tolls, the future.
Penny and Mike Wheat, who moved to the Travis/Hays County line 10 years back and have seen traffic increase "100%" since then, saw the road as little more than a recipe for additional congestion. "It's just exploded," Penny said. "We get concerned about all this other stuff coming in. Where are the people going to go? How are we going to get out of our house?"
Before going to the TxDOT forum, the Wheats had stopped downstairs, where David Richardson had gotten a room in which to present his town center plan. He had an elaborate slide show that compared typical suburban development with Envision Central Texas-style density, and he had taped printouts of the images all over the wall. He also had his maps. The Wheats said the town center sounded like a great idea, but recognized that financing and building such a project would be a much harder task than dreaming about it. The roads were their main concern and just about everyone else's. Eventually, Richardson closed up shop and joined the fun upstairs. Maneuvering through the crowd, he said he was worried, but optimistic. "If TxDOT's going to screw us, we're going to have to find ways to deal with it," he said.
Becky Halpin was there, too, feeling annoyed. "I think all they care about is moving people through. They don't care about the neighborhood," she said, but then shrugged in an oh-whatever kind of way. "It's great people-watching," she added with a grin.
Bruce Perrin, again in his baby-blue OHAN polo, seemed a little glum. Standing by the wall-to-wall windows, he talked rapidly into a cell phone, then clicked it shut with a small frown. "I'm worried about what that ..." said Perrin, sweeping his left arm toward the maps, "... will do to that," sweeping his other arm toward the windows. The view was fantastic. Someday in the next few years, though, it would be dominated by 50-foot, tolled flyovers. "And what happens to our town center? It just goes away," Perrin sighed.
He continued to gaze out east, over Oak Hill. In foreground, just below the Pinnacle, was a patch of undisturbed land, and a neighborhood whose rooftops barely poked out between the branches. Off in the distance, the buildings of downtown Austin glittered in the sky. Closer in, to the southeast, was the Convict Hill neighborhood, where prisoners had quarried the pink granite to build the Capitol, and to the northeast, past the Freescale campus, was the patch of greenery that would be flattened to house AMD. And between and among and around it all flowed the traffic, moving from strip mall to strip mall, heading home from work, or continuing on west into what we can still, at least for the time being, call the Hill Country.