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City Defends Process After Pushback on Grove Development Vetting

Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
The planned 75-acre development on Shoal Creek has faced opposition, partly, because of potential traffic impact on the nearby neighborhood.

From the Austin Monitor: A lengthy series of memos defending the city’s review of the Grove at Shoal Creek planned unit development emerged yesterday, and it could set the stage for the case returning to City Council later this month.

Attorney Jeff Howard, who is representing developers ARG Bull Creek Ltd., said he was “glad the reality of the process was coming out.”

“I think it’s a very good thing, both for the project and for the city,” said Howard. “It’s just good to see the city manager take such an in-depth review of that and confirm that the process was fair, robust and open.”

Chris Allen, who is a member of the Rosedale Neighborhood Association, which is part of the Bull Creek Road Coalition, was less thrilled. Allen told the Austin Monitor that the response was not what they were hoping to see before the case returns to City Council on Sept. 22.

“I think what we have is management saying everything is okay. But the actual staff review of the TIA (transportation impact analysis) would have analyzed the traffic volumes on the neighborhood street and would have looked at the impact of the project more specifically,” said Allen. “And that review was halted back in March.

He added, “(This is) more of a cleanup, to make sure that everyone is on the same page, and to defend the previous position, rather than going back and looking at the traffic as they should have in the first place.”

Although City Council had delayed the case, pending review of a newly amended TIA, developers ARG Bull Creek Ltd. withdrew that newly amended TIA on Tuesday, after entering into a contract to purchase 2645 W. 45th Street. “As a result,” wrote Howard, they “could confirm that any right-of-way required by the approved TIA is fully available,” making the amended TIA moot.

ARG Bull Creek spokesman Jason Meeker told the Austin Monitor that ARG had planned to donate two of the houses it had purchased to Austin’s Habitat for Humanity, pending inspection, and hoped to do the same with the newly purchased house.

Though the amended TIA and its review are no longer on the table, the city released several memos staunchly defending the rezoning process that had taken place nonetheless.

On Tuesday, assistant city managers Robert Goode and Sue Edwards sent a memo to City Council introducing the staff review. Right off the bat, that introductory review acknowledged that “development of the Grove has become a controversial issue with organizations, constituents, and Council members.” The memo also directly addresses management’s role in the review process and the accuracy of the TIA.

“In the case of a controversial, complex development project we absolutely expect and demand that Department Heads be personally involved. … (A)t the end of the day Department Heads are accountable for products that come out of their department,” it reads. “For a case as complicated and controversial as the Grove, we find it hard to understand why anyone would think that we wouldn’t require our Department Heads to be involved in the process.”

"Claims that they didn’t do the right thing are just, frankly, unfair."

Further addressing allegations about a nefarious process, the memo goes on to clarify that, at the rezoning phase the development is currently in, the city reviews only conceptual designs and traffic mitigation measures. Construction documents are reviewed through a separate development permit process. “This difference has been the source of confusion regarding front line staff’s comments and ‘management’ determining that some of those comments were not appropriate at the zoning phase and would be more appropriately addressed at site plan,” according to the memo.

The assistant city managers also clarify that Robert Spillar is not only the director of the Transportation Department, he is also “the City’s Traffic Engineer” and, as such, “he is the authority that makes decisions regarding traffic impacts.”

“In his attached response, you can see that Mr. Spillar has taken the step to seal this document as a Professional Engineer,” they write. “This is an unusual step, but in this controversial case, with so many allegations regarding the accuracy of the TIA, we believe that this action reiterates the professional weight of his conclusions.”

In Spillar’s own, sealed memo, dated Sept. 12, he provides a “technical analysis report on (the) traffic review process.” In the 13-page document, Spillar states that the TIA is accurate and appropriate, and he stands by the development phasing of the process and the extension of Jackson Street as a public road.

Spillar’s memo also explains that the developer’s proposed traffic mitigation was originally $750,000: “Because of the diligence of ATD review staff, mitigation proposed as part of the recommended TIA is nearly $3.2 million and includes major improvements to Bull Creek Road, a new public street through the development, bicycle improvements, a major multi-purpose trail connection across Shoal Creek, and many safety enhancements.” Spillar attributes this increased mitigation directly to “the coordinated review effort by front-line and management staff.”

A third, 20-page memo written by Spillar and Development Services Department Director Rodney Gonzales also maintains that the city process was appropriate, as was the role played by management in the review.

Howard told the Monitor that, after 12 months spent in traffic review, he concurred.

“It’s not fair to question (staff’s) integrity in this case. It’s just not,” said Howard. “I think staff genuinely and sincerely went the extra mile. … I think the recommendation we have is because the project merits it and because they went through such a rigorous process. Claims that they didn’t do the right thing are just, frankly, unfair.”

In an email to the Monitor, Allen observed, “Do the people of Austin understand that our City is helping Milestone make their project bigger by enabling them to turn our neighbors’ houses into streets? What would the average homeowner think if they woke up tomorrow to find out that the house next door was about to become a high-volume street for the benefit of a single developer and his high-end shopping center?”

He continued, “We’d be delighted with a scaled-down version of this project that offers adequate park space, a reduction in traffic, and less threat of flooding to neighbors and downtown Austin, but so far our efforts to create a Win-Win outcome have been ignored.”

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