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Austin City Council pushes forward lakefront development on former Statesman site

The former headquarters of the Austin American-Statesman newspaper along Lady Bird Lake in South Austin.
Gabriel C. Pérez
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KUT
The former headquarters of the Austin American-Statesman newspaper along Lady Bird Lake in South Austin.

Austin City Council members have taken the first step toward approving land use changes that would enable developers to build housing, and to build higher, along the south shore of Lady Bird Lake.

The nearly 19 acres of land at 305 S. Congress Ave., which sits at the foot of the Congress Avenue Bridge, includes the former site of the Austin-American Statesman offices, now empty, and roughly 7 acres of surface parking lot. Developers have proposed building hundreds of new housing units, a small fraction of them affordable to low-income people, plus offices and a hotel, and to dedicate much of the tract as public parkland.

The development, city staff acknowledged, could transform Austin’s waterfront.

“This is probably the most prominent location I’ve ever had to deal with on a zoning case,” Jerry Rusthoven, chief zoning officer with the city’s Housing and Planning Department, told council members as he introduced the item, which has been commonly referred to as the Statesman PUD. (PUD stands for planned unit development.)

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Courtesy of SOM
A rendering of the proposed development at 305 S. Congress Ave. while looking south from the Congress Avenue Bridge.

On Thursday night, council members voted unanimously to approve the changes, on a preliminary basis, allowing developers to build residential space and higher than currently permitted.

Members of the Cox family, who own the property, have contracted with a local developer, Endeavor Real Estate Group, which is proposing to build an expanse of residential and commercial space on the land. This could include nearly 1,400 new housing units, 1.5 million square feet of office space and a 275-room hotel. Developers have said they would put aside roughly 6 acres of public parkland, but that the owner would not pay to build or redesign these parks.

In addition, developers plan to build the vast majority of the site’s parking underground — something city staff have celebrated.

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Courtesy of SOM
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The current zoning of the property does not allow for housing to be built. If Austin City Council approves the changes, developers have proposed building nearly 1,400 new apartments.

“I don’t think anybody would like to be walking along the lake,” Rusthoven said. “On the left side you have the water, on the right side you have the wall of a parking garage.”

The zoning changes will require at least one more vote from the council before they are finalized. In the meantime, council members have a lot of questions and requests.

“We’re starting tonight what’s going to be a much longer conversation,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said before the vote. “I’m not sure we resolve anything tonight.”

Along with granting an initial go-ahead to these zoning amendments, council members also approved changes recommended by the city’s Planning Commission and Council Member Kathie Tovo, who represents this part of town.

One of the council’s sticking points will likely be affordable housing; right now, the developer has proposed making 4% of new rental housing built affordable to people making less than Austin’s median family income. (According to federal calculations, the median income for a household of four in Travis County amounts to $98,900 a year.)

Council has asked instead that one-tenth of any new rental housing be set aside for people earning low incomes, and that 5% of any for-sale homes be priced for a similar demographic.

“What we on this dais need to asses is whether the community benefits are commensurate with the request for increased entitlements,” Tovo said. “Is this the kind of transformation we want here on this site? I think largely it is the kind of transformation we want here on this site.”

Developers have also agreed to reserve land for a potential stop on the Blue Line, a public transit line that has been proposed as part of Austin's Project Connect.

Screen Shot 2022-04-08 at 12.05.57 PM.png
Courtesy of SOM
Austin's Project Connect, a plan to expand the city's public transportation network, includes the Blue Line, which crosses the river from downtown. Developers of the Statesman PUD have said they will set aside land for a Blue Line stop on the property.

Attorney Richard Suttle, who has been representing the property owners at council meetings, said Thursday that any changes elected officials ask for will have to make financial sense for the owners.

“I think everybody sees the opportunity here. I think now we’re just down to details. And it has to be financially sound; that’s the key,” Suttle said. “Everything that we do on this is just a push, pull.”

It’s unclear when this case will come back in front of council members for a final vote; city staff said Thursday it could be a “little while.”

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Audrey McGlinchy is KUT's housing reporter. Got a tip? Email her at audrey@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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