Grove at Shoal Creek Inches Forward
Council to finally consider contentious West Austin zoning case
Even when it lay dormant as an unofficial dog park for the families in several West Austin neighborhoods, the Bull Creek Annex – what they call the 75-acre tract of land bordered by Bull Creek Road, 45th Street, and Shoal Creek – threatened to be a boiling point in the argument this city has been wrestling with for the past several decades: How do we expand for the streams of newcomers, while at the same time preserving what made Austin so desirable in the first place?
That question hasn't gotten any easier since 1997, when Mike Clark-Madison wrote about the parcel for the Chronicle (see "Déjà Vu Development," July 18, 1997). Back then, the state still owned the property, and TxDOT had plans to build an $11 million facility there. Even then, some interested parties were willing to accommodate anything TxDOT wanted "lest they end up with their own Triangle Square."
It didn't work. The state sold the land, which held a smattering of TxDOT buildings, in 2014 to ARG Bull Creek Ltd. for $47 million. Because the state had owned the land for so long, it'd never been zoned, so ARG began to put together a proposal to request planned unit development (PUD) zoning for the site. The designation gives developers more flexibility in exchange for a community benefit, the key word here being the project's "superiority."
Neighborhood visions of a compact, mixed-use development centered around an H-E-B quickly dissipated. And though the easy narrative is to cast the neighborhood watchdogs following the project as NIMBYs, the conversation quickly became not about stopping the development, but making sure the developers built a project that would be compatible with everything around it.
One of those groups, the Bull Creek Road Coalition, was co-founded by then-activist and current City Council Member Leslie Pool back in 2012. The coalition represents six neighborhoods in West Austin (including Ridgelea, Rosedale, and Oakmont Heights) that had a clear interest in what would be built on the 75 acres. Before ARG even bought the land, the BCRC polled its members and put forward a list of recommendations it felt any entity that came into possession of the property should keep in mind.
Last year, Allandale homeowner Natalie Gauldin started a Facebook group called Friends of the Grove as an outlet for people who were excited, rather than skeptical, about the new development. The group has grown to 700 members, many of whom have spoken in favor of the project when it came before various boards and commissions. Gauldin has used her experience with the Grove to fuel an election challenge to Pool in District 7. At their first candidates' forum on Sept. 9, Gauldin reiterated how "excited" she is at the possibility the Grove could be approved.
The relationship between the developer and the BCRC has been turbulent – to say the very least. Over the past year, the BCRC (aided by the Rosedale Neighborhood Association, among other groups) has raised questions about the scale of the development, the ratio of residential to commercial and office uses, traffic, parkland designation, flood retention and mitigation, and much, much more.
All that bickering has led to today, Sept. 22, when the proposed Grove at Shoal Creek planned unit development is scheduled to come before the full City Council. Whether it actually hears the Grove or yet again punts a difficult discussion, today isn't the be-all and end-all for one of the most contentious zoning cases this city has ever seen. Once Council considers the application, it will have to wrestle with amendments proposed by at least two interested council members. Pool, who quit the BCRC to take office, and District 10 CM Sheri Gallo are easily the most invested members on the dais. The project itself is located in Gallo's district; Pool's begins just across the street, north of 45th Street, and many of the neighborhood interests have her ear – for obvious reasons.
The two clashed earlier this year during a heated debate about tweaking the city ordinance governing PUD approval. In response to Gallo's support for an amendment (put forward by the mayor) that many, including Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, saw as eroding the neighborhoods' ability to protest controversial PUDs, Pool sent a tweet speculating that it might be "the nail in Gallo's coffin" (see "Council Brawls on PUDs," Feb. 5). The tweet was meant for a staffer, Pool later admitted, and it was quickly deleted, but the message was clear.
Gallo had her own Grove gaffe a few months later, when her appointee to the Parks and Recreation Board, Alison Alter, decided to challenge Gallo for her seat in the November election. After giving Alter the chance to resign – which she refused to do – Gallo removed her from the position and replaced her with former PARB member Susan Roth (see "Council Candidate Forced out of Parks Board," Aug. 4.)
Alter might be gone from PARB and in the middle of a campaign, but the Grove has remained a focus for her. The Rosedale resident pressed her PARB colleagues on the meaning of superiority when the Grove came up in May, and said she still has questions about what benefits the development will offer the community. "There's lots of misleading information. There's lots of smoke and mirrors that has been going on with this. We still don't know if we have a decent traffic impact analysis. And given the traffic problems we have in Austin, there should be no doubt about the ability of a development like this to be able to deal with the traffic that it is adding to the system.
"What Council chooses to do on this case is going to be precedent-setting for future PUDs," Alter continued. "As currently set forth, this PUD sets the bar very low for superiority. It is not superior, in my opinion, in traffic, parks, or drainage. Those are the things the neighbors cared most about. And we are going to have many other PUDs coming forward, and those other groups are watching this PUD to see how much they're going to get away with."
Traffic is by far the most pressing concern for the interested parties. The neighbors have raised concerns about the number of trips that will be added to Bull Creek Road, though staff has repeatedly said the mitigation efforts ARG agreed to fund will actually improve traffic in that area.
There's been speculation that staff concerns went unheeded, however. An Austin American-Statesman article at the end of August revealed that Austin Transportation Department engineers had asked for their names to be removed from the department's final traffic study. The city quickly released a slew of memos defending its handling of the situation.
One major sticking point is the developer's plan to remove a house it purchased on 45th Street in order to extend Jackson Avenue and create another exit to the property. The BCRC and surrounding neighbors are concerned about potential commercial truck traffic and if the plans for a right-in-right-out on 45th Street are feasible. Cat and Ryder Jeanes, who own the house next door, have fought ARG and the city bitterly on this aspect, saying also that the city is flouting deed restrictions that dictate how the property can be used. In a Sept. 12 memo, ATD Director Robert Spillar explained that because city staff considers the Jackson Avenue expansion a public good, those deed restrictions (on the original property ARG bought, and two other adjacent lots) don't apply anymore.
Alter laid out some of her concerns in an email she sent to Council this Tuesday, Sept. 20, questioning how many affordable units will be in the final plans. Initially, ARG pledged 180 affordable units, a number that has steadily fallen in the last year. The city's Neighborhood Housing and Community Development office this week confirmed ARG plans on preserving 15% of the residential stock (10% to rent, 5% for sale) for affordable housing, which comes out to 108 total units.
The Rosedale NA circulated a list of outstanding concerns about the Grove last week. In addition to asking why the number of affordable units has been reduced to such an extent, it also questioned the details of the agreement, for instance how many square feet those units will be, what they will cost, and how much each unit will cost the city in subsidies and waivers.
"I am a former professor and in my experience a D is not a superior grade," Alter wrote. "We can and need to set our sights higher. The choice before [Council] sets a precedent not just for the Grove but for all future state land that passes hands as well as for other PUDs."
The proposed parkland dedication is a major issue for the neighborhood activists. ARG's Garrett Martin said last December that they weren't asking PARB to judge whether or not the park component of the Grove PUD is superior, although he said the company felt its park would be a community benefit because it'll be maintained in perpetuity with money from the development. That's what Ted Siff of the Shoal Creek Conservancy pointed out to explain why the SCC thought PARB should consider the Grove's parks superior: "Our assessment of the application, based on those requirements, is that [the Grove] provides more parkland than the minimum. It provides more than 10 percent more than the minimum parkland required. And that it provides over $1 million worth of improvements that isn't required by that ordinance. There are three ways we came to our conclusion that it was superior."
PARB didn't agree. In May, when the board ruled that the PUD did not yet meet the requirements for superiority under the 2007 Parkland Dedication Ordinance, it gave the developer a list of things it would need to accomplish if it did want to achieve superiority. That list included adding 2 acres of "flex space" to the signature park, adding an additional 3 acres to the park, and installing a trail to connect the property to the Shoal Creek Greenbelt.
Drainage was something of an afterthought for much of the last year, while ARG and the BCRC fought over traffic and parkland. It wasn't until mid-September that the Pease Park Conservancy sent a letter to Council sounding the alarm about the developer possibly seeking to pay a fee in lieu of on-site drainage (see "Conservancy Groups Split on Grove Flood Control," Sept. 16).
The fee in question is the Regional Stormwater Management Program, a city program that allows developers to pay into a watershed account. Funds from that account can be used for a specific list of things, including to purchase land, secure buyouts, and make storm drain improvements. The city's Watershed Department said it hasn't made a decision either way, but that the fees from ARG could go toward "future flood mitigation activities" in the lower part of the Shoal Creek Watershed or other projects "along the Hancock and Grover Tributaries in the upper part of the watershed." Though the Rosedale NA's Chris Allen is skeptical that the RSMP even has any current goals or projects, the city said RSMP fees are currently helping with several projects including the Lower Onion Creek buyouts and the Little Walnut Creek Flood Hazard Reduction Project, among others.