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Council Inches Closer to Action on the Grove

Miguel Gutierrez Jr.

For several months now, the Austin City Council’s decision about whether to approve the zoning for the Grove at Shoal Creek, a proposed 75-acre mixed-use development, has driven hours of debate and faced numerous delays. So, why is it taking so long?

When we’re not hearing about the Grove at council meetings, behind-the-scenes discussions on the case can get especially technical. The Grove at Shoal Creek is a PUD, or planned unit development. The zoning term refers to instances when several different types of developments are planned as one big project. In this case, the developer wants to build housing, office space and retail all on a largely vacant 75-acre tract of land near 45th Street and Shoal Creek Boulevard.

Council Member Sheri Gallo represents District 10, in which the Grove will be located. At a Council work session on Tuesday, she discussed concerns shared with her by people living near the site.

“There was a lot of discussion in the neighborhood of wanting to have the ability to have a local grocery store there and discussion of what sizes were appropriate for a local grocery store,” Gallo said.

Gallo proposed amendments relating to home sizes and noise regulations for the development. Why get into the weeds of these details? Because the details can make a big difference in whether a development gets approval for PUD zoning, and getting approval can be difficult because such projects are supposed to be superior to those built through traditional zoning regulations.

If you ask Council Member Leslie Pool, the standard for that superiority can be rather subjective. “We’re throwing out the word ‘superiority’ and that’s being echoed back at us, saying, ‘Our parks are superior,’ or ‘our environmental piece is superior,’ or ‘our traffic mitigation piece is superior.’ But by how much?” Pool asked.

Pool represents District 7, which borders the proposed development, and has been a vocal critic of the city’s review process. On Tuesday, she proposed cutting down the amount of commercial and retail space allowed at the Grove, which she says could draw traffic from all around the city.

To make matters more complicated, the land once belonged to the state and has never been zoned by the city of Austin. Pool said the way Council handles the Grove could set the stage for future PUD cases.

“In setting precedent for future decisions – because I do think we need to rework a whole bunch of stuff about how we’re handling the PUDs, and especially with all the public land that’s going to be up for sale – we really do need to go back and get that land zoned somehow so that we don’t have this same kind of morass to deal with,” Pool said. “It’s just too squishy.”

Another factor that could be slowing down the process is Council’s decision to take up zoning cases like the Grove only once a month. At Tuesday’s work session, Council members discussed the merits of tackling such cases as they come up rather than waiting for the next month’s designated zoning day.

So far, the Grove has been shuffled from one public hearing to the next. The case has been heard by the Environmental Commission, the Zoning and Platting Commission and even the Parks and Recreation Board – an unusual step for a PUD case – because of concerns that not enough parkland was being offered. Its first hearing before the full Council started late in the evening, and the vote was ultimately postponed.

The Grove’s next shot before Council is Oct. 20.

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