The Champion of Camelback?
Jonathan Coon pursues a complex project near the Pennybacker Bridge
Old zoning cases never die. They just get amended.
That's one lesson from the seemingly endless arguments over the Champion tracts, northwest Austin parcels zoned, grandfathered, and rezoned over the last three decades. In February, over bitter opposition from some neighbors, City Council approved the latest rezoning of Champion Tract 3, a triangular, 45-acre piece of land at the intersection of RM 2222 and City Park Road. It now appears the tract will be returning to the dais, at least indirectly – through its potential connection to the Camelback property, a bit south and west of Champion Tract 3. The Camelback land (named after a hill on the property) is a 145-acre tract that fronts on Lake Austin, and owner/developer Jonathan Coon has proposed a planned unit development there that would include his own home, residential home sites, a boutique hotel, commercial office space, a private park open to the public, and a restaurant above the lake.
In February, Coon also purchased an option to buy Champion Tract 3 from its current owners – Houston-based Slate Real Estate Partners – and initially tied the closing of that purchase to quick city approval of his plans for the Camelback PUD. The $1 million option – if not extended – expires Sept. 1, and city staff said last week that the approval process will not be completed by that date. Coon told me that he is seeking an extension until at least Oct. 1, and his representatives reiterated that "time is very short and the city staff will need to complete its review expeditiously in order for the community's preferred outcome for both tracts to occur."
Slate's approved project for the tract is a 325-unit apartment project; Coon says he will instead build a much smaller senior living center, while compensating for the lost value on that land by increasing the amount of commercial office space in the Camelback PUD. But the two projects are not officially connected – Coon says that if the option expires or otherwise falls through, he will proceed with his Camelback plans as originally conceived. He's done personal outreach to the surrounding neighborhood associations, and thus far has received enthusiastic support from seven surrounding NAs and HOAs – Greenshores, Monte Vista, River Place, Shepherd Mountain, et al. – as well as from the Lake Austin Collective (which fiercely opposed the Slate project), and even the Austin Neighborhoods Council executive committee.
The Westminster Glen HOA endorsement letter, for example, praises Coon's community outreach and his Camelback plan to address public, environmental, and traffic considerations – citing the plan's "respect for our environmental and zoning laws" – but it is also one of several letters written under the impression that the tract will be part of the amended PUD. That incorporation is in fact not an aspect of the PUD application to the city.
The strongest opposition to Coon's plan comes from across Lake Austin, along the south shore – most specifically, from longtime landowners Bill and Christie Nalle and the Bunny Run NA. They argue that the proposed development is "too big and too dense" for the wooded cliffside area, that it will increase traffic on City Park Road even more than the embattled Slate project – in part because the PUD includes an extension of Bridge Point Parkway through Camelback – and that Coon's list of requested variances will result in a development worse than that allowed under the existing 1986 ordinances, which anticipate 64 home sites. BRNA President Lyra Bemis said southside residents would like to see the site remain "mostly residential and natural," and says of the proposed restaurant, "We don't need another Oasis."
Most vividly, the Nalles object to Coon's proposal to build boat docks along the shoreline – they describe it as a "commercial marina" – and his working conception of a 200-foot elevator to lift boat-arriving customers to a clifftop restaurant. Christie Nalle said the increased boat traffic will add danger to a difficult bend in the lake, especially at night – including the prospect of "drunk customers" crashing into the docks – and that despite Coon's assurances of environmental care, "We are all concerned about what his development is going to do to the land. ... Don't turn something beautiful into something that's ugly."
Forty acres of the southside shoreline are owned by the Hill Country Conservancy – the Nalle Bunny Run Wildlife Preserve, on land donated by the Nalles in honor of Bill's mother. The Conservancy does not take positions on proposed projects, but CEO George Cofer said the HCC is monitoring the Camelback process. "We pay close attention to what goes on around us in terms of the impact on habitat," Cofer said – "dark skies, and so on, and in this instance ... lake traffic. The number of boats on Lake Austin has increased so dramatically over the recent years, that we're looking at significant loss of shoreline at the Preserve."
Coon says he has consistently responded to the neighbors' environmental concerns by adjusting the plans (to reduce light and noise pollution, and protect heritage trees), that there is no "marina," and that the additional boat traffic will be negligible. He said the docks, for example, had been moved farther away from the iconic Pennybacker Bridge in part because of residents' concern over their environmental impact – and says he's asked the Nalles for similar constructive collaboration, which they've declined. "It seems they just don't want to see a boat dock opposite their boat dock."
Coon says that he is continuing to amend the plans in response to city Planning and Zoning staff recommendations, still in progress, and the proposal then will need to move through both the Environmental and Zoning and Platting Commissions before it arrives at Council. A spokesperson for Council Member Alison Alter (both tracts are in her District 10) said she is waiting for that staff process to conclude before she adopts a position on the "final proposal."
Coon says he's not certain what the Nalles might mean by a "beautiful" project. "If [their] definition of beautiful is nothing built there," Coon said, "that's just not possible."