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Council Approves Grove PUD

Miguel Gutierrez Jr.

From the Austin Monitor: After more than two years of fierce debate among neighbors, a developer and City Hall leaders, City Council finally approved the Grove at Shoal Creek, a massive planned unit development to be built on 75 acres of vacant land at the corner of Bull Creek Road and 45th Street.

The PUD approved by Council on Thursday was largely based on a mediated agreement reached between the project developer, ARG Bull Creek Ltd., and the Bull Creek Road Coalition, a neighborhood group that has led a vocal campaign in favor of reducing the size of the development.

The PUD was approved 9-2, with only Council members Don Zimmerman and Ellen Troxclair in dissent.

Council Member Leslie Pool, who was a leader in the BCRC before her election to Council and whose district borders the property, said that the final PUD was far from perfect but that it represented a compromise that she could support.

Council Member Sheri Gallo, in whose district the project is located, also applauded the collaboration among city staff, the developer and neighbors who got the project “to a place where most of us are getting most of what we want.”

It was Gallo’s last meeting as a Council member. She was defeated in a runoff election Tuesday by her opponent, Alison Alter, whose candidacy was fueled largely by neighborhood concerns about growth in West Austin, particularly the Grove and Austin Oaks, another contentious PUD.

Although Gallo led Alter by a substantial margin in the Nov. 8 general election, she was not able to get many of her voters to return to the polls for the Dec. 13 runoff and was trounced, 2-1.

Gallo said she hoped there would be less rancor and more collaboration on developments in the future.

The Thursday meeting could have run a lot less smoothly if Council Member Greg Casar had gone forward with his previous suggestion to raise the amount of allowable commercial space on the property, a proposal he floated earlier this week as a means to get the developer to build more affordable housing as part of the project. While the BCRC said it supported more affordable housing, it was vehemently opposed to adding more commercial property.

In the end, Casar pushed for an amendment to increase the subsidy the city will put toward affordable housing in the development from $10.2 million to $13.15 million. As a result of the added funding, 11.85 percent of the rental units on the site will be reserved for those with incomes at 60 percent of median family income, and 1.6 percent will be reserved for those at 80 percent of MFI. In addition, 7.9 percent of the owner-occupied units will be for those at 80 percent of MFI.

An amendment to the PUD offered by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovowill require that at least 50 percent of the affordable rental units have two or more bedrooms. Tovo described the measure as a way to ensure that neighborhoods in Central Austin continue to be a place for families. In response to opposition from Jeff Howard, attorney for ARG, Tovo withdrew an amendment that would have required 75 percent of the affordable owner-occupied units to have two or more bedrooms.

Council Member Delia Garza also opted not to push for a change to the PUD that the BCRC was against. Instead of proposing a street connection between Jackson Avenue and 45th Street, Garza offered an amendment to require a bicycle and pedestrian connection between the two streets.

Garza said that she would have preferred a road connection and bemoaned a pattern of Council setting aside sound transportation planning in response to opposition from neighborhood groups.

“We are not going to solve issues doing it neighborhood by neighborhood,” she said. “To me, that sets a bad precedent.”

Pool responded that the neighborhood opposition to the proposed vehicular connection was linked to concerns about the two houses that would need to be demolished for the road. In addition, she said, “Connectivity doesn’t always mean laying concrete and doesn’t always mean cars.”

Garza’s amendment ultimately passed 10-1, with only Zimmerman against.

Zimmerman, also in his last Council meeting after losing his re-election bid last month, issued his customary denunciations of subsidized housing and ridiculed Tovo’s amendments requiring a certain number of bedrooms in the homes.

Troxclair said that she had been uncomfortable with the city subsidizing housing in the development at all, but that the increase from Casar’s amendments made it impossible for her to support the PUD.

“This money is basically being robbed from the General Fund,” she said.

Council Member Ann Kitchen also added language to the ordinance that will require the eventual landowner to participate in a pilot program aimed at connecting those who work at nearby employers with housing in the Grove. The goal is to get employers to voluntarily pay part of the rent of employees whose incomes are too low (40 percent MFI) for them to afford the units reserved for those at 60 percent of MFI.

In an interview with the Austin Monitor after the meeting, Howard said he was proud of the city for approving the “outstanding project” that he has worked on for more than two years.

A group of five BCRC activists approached by a reporter outside of City Hall expressed notably less enthusiasm about the result, with all agreeing that ARG’s satisfaction with the deal was proof that the developer had not had to concede much in return.

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