City Council Grants Early OK to Statesman Property Plan

Batcave begins

Photo by John Anderson

The prime piece of Downtown real estate that formerly housed the Austin American-Statesman's newsroom and printing press inched closer toward redevelopment last week, as Council at its April 7 meeting unanimously approved on first reading various land use changes requested by the landowner.

Owned by the Cox family, which held onto the property after selling the Statesman itself in 2015, the 18-acre tract fronts Lady Bird Lake and anchors the 118 acres of real estate known as the South Central Waterfront, for which Council adopted a high-level master plan in 2016. Insiders call the project the Statesman PUD (i.e., planned unit development, like Mueller); formally, it's 305 South Congress, the address of the Statesman building, known for years in this newspaper as the Batcave.

Developer Endeavor Real Estate Group is working with architects from Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and with Armbrust & Brown attorney Richard Suttle to shepherd the PUD through the city's land use slog. Plans for the PUD include an estimated 1,378 residential units, a 275-bed hotel, 1.5 million square feet of office space, and about 150,000 square feet of restaurant and retail space, contained within six towers in three different zones allowing maximum heights of 250, 480, and 525 feet.

The plan also includes around 8 acres of open space – parks and plazas accessible to the public along the lakefront. (The developers have committed to retaining public access to the bat viewing area near the Ann Richards Congress Avenue Bridge.) Designers also plan to work with the city to improve pedestrian and bike access to and on the site and a future Project Connect Blue Line station on the southeastern corner of the site.

While introducing the case to Council, Chief Zoning Officer Jerry Rusthoven described the site as the "most prominent location" he has worked on in his nearly three decades at the city's ever-changing planning department. "Myself and all the other city staff that have been working on this case for the past 2½ years, [we've] kept that in mind," he told Council, before outlining what he considers to be key elements in the still-under-negotiation development deal between Endeavor and the city.

Those include a commitment that 95% of the 4,000 parking spaces built for the project will be underground (currently, that's four floors of below-grade parking; the SCW plan had envisioned six to eight floors of above-grade parking). Other conditions Rusthoven highlighted include minimums of one office building and three residential/hotel towers, with at least 40,000 square feet of pedestrian-­oriented uses (like retail, bars, or restaurants) to ensure a "truly mixed-use project."

“Our hearts are heavy because this isn’t the outcome that we wanted tonight. But please know that we’ll continue to relentlessly advocate for the needs of our community.” – Council Member Vanessa Fuentes

Despite the city's best efforts at negotiating, though, the PUD as proposed includes very little on-site affordable housing – about 55 units, available to families of four earning 60% of Austin's median income, or about $59,340 per year. Kathie Tovo, whose District 9 includes the Statesman PUD, is pushing to more than double that figure (to 10% of all units), or to include 5% of any for-sale units at 80% of median income. Tovo also wants income-restricted units to include a "variety of bedroom mixes" to accommodate families with children.

These details, along with how to finance the public open space, will be worked out as 305 South Congress seeks approval on second and third readings in upcoming weeks. Meanwhile, staff and Council continue work on fleshing out the vision for the rest of the SCW.

Elsewhere on the agenda, Council failed to approve a resolution from Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, which would have slowed down plans to expand jet fuel storage capacity at the Austin airport. The resolution, which would have required staff to identify three alternative locations to store 6 million gallons of jet fuel over the next 15-20 years (in addition to the staff-preferred location opposite residences on McCall Lane) failed on a 5-5 tie (CMs Ann Kitchen, Pio Renteria, Chito Vela, and Tovo voted with Fuentes on the resolution; CM Natasha Harper-Madison did not attend the meeting and missed the vote). "Our hearts are heavy because this isn't the outcome that we wanted tonight," Fuentes said after the vote. "But please know that we'll continue to relentlessly advocate for the needs of our community."

This means AUS staff can basically proceed as planned with construction of two 1.5-million-gallon tanks at the preferred site – despite urgent calls from people living on McCall Lane to find a different location out of fear for their safety. Expansion of the fuel depot, and of the rest of the airport, will proceed with the help of a new "Green Team" proposed by Mayor Steve Adler (who voted against Fuentes' resolution). The team will include community volunteers, businesses, and city staff focused on "comprehensive environmental stewardship of the airport" throughout its expansion.

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