Austin Oaks: The Other Grove

The Grove at Shoal Creek is not the only PUD worth arguing about

Photo by Jana Birchum

While the controversial Grove at Shoal Creek PUD proposal has dominated the focus in the hotly contested City Council race for District 10, there's another equally divisive project that has the candidates divided: the Austin Oaks PUD at the intersection of MoPac and Spicewood Springs.

The Austin Oaks redevelopment has drawn the ire of D10 residents since July 2014, when Dallas-based developer Spire Realty Group first submitted its PUD application. Back then, Spire Realty envisioned the Northwest Austin office complex to be a sprawling 1.62 million square feet of commercial and residential space with buildings as tall as 17 stories. None of that sat well with the community: An overwhelming 93% of the neighborhood opposed the PUD in August of that year, according to feedback collected by the Northwest Austin Civ­ic Association. Traffic congestion, school overcrowding, tree and parkland preservation, and building height proved sticking points.

A lot has changed since that first application, however. In January, NWACA, Spire Realty, city staff, and area residents engaged in a four-day charrette, a collaborative planning and design process meant to address and solve project conflicts. Out of that intensive multi-day meeting, Spire Realty agreed to decrease the size of the mixed-use property by nearly 428,000 square feet, shrink building height, and add a hotel and two parks. "We came up with a better plan with the charrette process," said Chris Hajdu, president of NWACA.

Despite these alterations, the Austin Oaks PUD still has many opponents. As with the Grove, lead D10 Council challenger Alison Alter has derided the proposed Austin Oaks PUD in debates and on the campaign trail. At a candidate forum on Oct. 4, Alter said both Austin Oaks and The Grove deserve "D" grades and that neither should move forward. Fellow D10 candidate Rob Walker is on the same page, suggesting at various points that Austin Oaks needs to be scaled back considerably in order for it to be suitable for the community. Both believe that if the Austin Oaks PUD proceeds as it stands, the environmental and traffic concerns raised by residents will come to pass.

Incumbent Sheri Gallo held that line when the project was planned two years ago. Gallo recently told the Chronicle that she felt the Austin Oaks PUD as imagined originally was "inappropriate for the neighborhood." But the council member has since changed her tune. In February, NWACA passed a resolution ratifying the charrette process and saying that the developer's current PUD proposal follows "the spirit of the plan from the charrette," Hajdu said. Gallo told the Chronicle that she supports NWACA's resolution.

How Austin Oaks PUD has been handled could be a template for the way development moves forward in the city.

D10 candidate Nick Virden has also voiced support for the proposed Austin Oaks PUD in previous forums, but with trepidation. Like many residents, Virden worries that the development will exacerbate the logjam of traffic at MoPac and Spicewood Springs. Still, the UT-Austin graduate can see the benefit in the project. "We're moving in the direction of building a town center for the neighborhood," he said. "It helps us not depend as much on Down­town for jobs, shopping, and housing."

Jon Ruff, president of Spire Realty, said the company continues to refine the plan developed out of the charrette, although it's not the one they "think is best."

"But I am going to honor the plan. I'm going to honor the process," Ruff said. "We're ready to move on it."

Spire Realty submitted a new Austin Oaks PUD plan on Sept. 1.

The Austin Oaks PUD went before the Zoning and Platting Commission on Oct. 18. ZAP commissioners voted 6-4 to postpone the hearing until Nov. 1. Residents wanted more time to review the Transportation Impact Analysis memo provided by staff.

Staff has recommended to approve the PUD with the following conditions, as listed in a staff report sent to the Chronicle by Andrew Moore, senior planner at the city's Planning and Zoning Department: limiting a cocktail lounge's square footage, implementing traffic infrastructure modifications as listed in the TIA, and reserving up to half of the affordable housing units to Austin ISD employees. [Ed. note: ZAP has not voted on the PUD itself.]

How Austin Oaks PUD has been handled could be a template for the way development moves forward in the city. As growth accelerates, the divide between pro-development and development-weary residents continues to deepen. The charrette process, Hajdu suggested, could help bridge that divide. Through a charrette, important stakeholders are brought to the table to scrutinize a proposed development. More importantly, the process keeps developers from "doing whatever they want" with a project, he said. And if it's successful, all parties will walk away with at least part of what they've wanted.

But a charrette is a massive undertaking, one that requires a lot of time, energy, and money. "It's not a cheap solution, but it's a good solution," Hajdu said.

This story has been updated to most accurately reflect the nature of the Zoning and Planning Commission's vote held on the PUD.

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Austin Oaks, Sheri Gallo, Nick Virden, Alison Alter, Spire Realty, Jon Ruff, Rob Walker

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