Saving Lady Bird Lake

Civic Theatre rarely gets finer

In a closely watched vote, the city's Parks and Recreation Board voted 5-4 to uphold protections against high-rise development too close to the shores of Lady Bird Lake. The developer of 222 and 300 E. Riverside – CWS, represented by Vice President Greg Miller and attorney Richard Suttle – has been seeking variances to the Waterfront Overlay Ordinance, to build three, 200-foot condo towers 150 feet from the shoreline. That's 50 feet closer than the law allows. Despite enticing community benefits wrangled out of the developer, the commissioners finally declined to set a precedent of making one-off developer deals that trade away protections.

After nine months of tense and controversial consideration of the issue, commissioners spoke passionately about voting their consciences – some with voices and hands visibly shaking. They described the gut-wrenching difficulty of being forced to choose between one set of parkland benefits – 2 acres of dedicated waterfront, with a short extension of the hike-and-bike trail, restrooms, and a parks office – against another – protecting open space on the waterfront. They heard from a long parade of "no variance" citizen speakers, many rallied to the cause by nonprofit SaveTownLake.org. Familiar faces included Mary Arnold, Bill Bunch, Jackie Goodman, Jeff Jack, and Bill Oliver, who lightened the evening with a clever protest song that got even Suttle laughing. Chair Linda Guer­rero expressed disappointment that her board had been unable to reach consensus, before dramatically casting the deciding vote to break a 4-4 tie.

Hours before the meeting, City Council Member Mike Mar­tinez, who appointed Guerrero, lent his support for upholding development protections with a press release announcing his opposition to any Waterfront Overlay variances on a deal-by-deal basis. "For me, the policy issue at hand is whether or not the City Council should begin dismantling the Town Lake Waterfront Overlay piece by piece," Martinez said. "I don't believe we should be taking the teeth out of the Waterfront Overlay."

Guerrero also asked her board members to join her in a resolution requesting that the Planning Commission (which gets this case next) or council set a clear, comprehensive policy on Waterfront Overlay variances. This would align as policy with the density bonus matrix now being developed. Floated was the idea of a moratorium on Waterfront Overlay variance requests and grants for shoreline property, until a clear set of guidelines is established. Jeb Boyt, who voted for the variances, expressed support for a moratorium, observing, "It's just been amazing to me that providing new parkland and public access to the lake is actually considered the threat!"

In a surprise reversal, the Town Lake Trail Foundation supported the variances. Executive Director Susan Rankin spoke in favor of gaining public access to what is now private land. Upon questioning, she said the cost of the alternative – an overwater boardwalk trail right past the property – is estimated at $1,523 per linear foot, which pencils out to about $1.7 million for the site's roughly 1,120 feet of lakefront shoreline. The Parks Department's Ricardo Soliz said the developer owes the city $1.7 million in parkland-dedication fees for the project. How synchronistic: exactly enough to build a boardwalk trail right past the whole tract. So why deal with the developer?

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