Point Austin: Down in the Grove
Agreement on latest PUD portends … a little progress?
While the various interest groups were not exactly singing "Kumbaya" at Tuesday's special-called City Council meeting to consider the Grove at Shoal Creek planned unit development, there was sufficient comity in the room to suggest that by the end of 2016, the PUD will have achieved Council approval and move toward breaking ground in the new year. For readers who have been following this debate for what is now nearly two years, that outcome seemed quite unlikely in late October, when the developer, ARG Bull Creek Ltd., and the Bull Creek Road Coalition of nearby neighborhoods entered mediation trailing mutual expressions of frustration and exhaustion.
Until Sunday, when the two sides announced a surprising agreement, Council observers were expecting a donnybrook that would once again postpone action, perhaps even convince the developer to drop its PUD proposal and seek conventional zoning, tract by McMansion tract. Instead, the agreement takes on all of the major issues separating the two sides – overall scale, affordable housing, traffic, drainage, even amplified sound limitations when the development is finally completed. Testimony Tuesday afternoon and into the evening made clear that nobody got everything they wanted – there is some yearning on the dais for more affordable units, and even the lawyers were confused by the parkland amendments. At bottom, the fear of additional traffic in that fairly sedate neighborhood approaches the hysterical, although some calming voices Tuesday from Westminster Manor (i.e., people who live directly opposite the site) and city Transportation Director Robert Spillar suggested that fear is overblown.
In that context, one detail of the agreement is puzzling: the removal of the Jackson Street connection, which would have moved some traffic through the center of the development onto 45th Street, addressing both connectivity and congestion. By taking some load off Bull Creek (especially if transit eventuates), that proposal could have addressed the traffic concern – but the necessary removal of two houses seemed to inflame the opposition, so it was dropped.
Progs vs. Progs
But these details best belong to those directly involved and to the Council, with reiterated emphasis that this project affects the entire city, not just the nearest residents. For family reasons, I'm in that area quite often (at all times of the day), and yes, there's traffic – as there is everywhere else in the city. What has most interested (or appalled) me about the debate, from a broader city perspective, is how extremely opinions have been polarized, and how both sides reflexively claim the Austin high ground of "progressive" politics. On one side, "defending the neighborhood" means the development represents an assault on traditional residential neighborhoods, and those who support the project are no more than tools of the real estate lobby. On the other, "supporting residential density" means the development represents a mighty blow against economic segregation, and those who oppose it are no more than entitled NIMBYists who want above all to preserve their wealth and privilege.
That's a fairly polite summary, as Twitter users or readers of our forums – where examples of Godwin's law have become embarrassingly commonplace – can readily attest. Like so many others, this PUD – which by definition is a planning option designed to encourage superior development practices – has become a litmus test of where Austinites stand on "growth," for better or worse. And whichever side you're on, you're the enemy.
I'm a single-family homeowner in a mostly single-family neighborhood, yet I confess I'm inclined to the position that over the long haul, Austin will not bend the spiking housing cost curve without a substantial increase in available residential units of all kinds and prices. I suppose that makes me a traitor to both sides of the land-use war, one that will not end with the eventual outcome of the Grove debate. The battle is already heating up over CodeNEXT, where one side suspects a Real Estate Council plot to eliminate SF-3 zoning, and the other suspects an Austin Neighborhoods Council plot to block any expansion of multi-family, mixed-use construction anywhere in the city.
That's an argument that will persist over the next year and into the tenure of the next city manager and the next City Council, and I don't envy any of them the task of persuading Austinites that there's some middle ground among these polarized perspectives. If the pending Grove agreement can become a negotiated model for what's possible in these bitter and prolonged arguments, maybe the next such battle – perhaps Austin Oaks, scheduled for Dec. 15 – will be neither so bitter nor so prolonged.
More likely, alas, are more extended proxy wars over single developments that also embody the ongoing struggle over what sort of Austin we idealize, and what we mean when we each claim to know best what "Austin values" are. "Community" is presumably high on the list; we can begin by helping the Shoal Creek Grove and its neighbors to become one.