After hammering out a final set of trade-offs, the City Council approved the redevelopment plans for the Austin Oaks office park, bringing an end to the nearly three-year fight over the site.
The plan would bring new office towers, retail and up to 375 new housing units — including 41 for lower income residents — to replace the business park, which sits on 31 acres at MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and Spicewood Springs Road. It was approved Thursday night on an 8-2 vote.
“This has been a long process for District 10 and the community around Austin Oaks,” said Council Member Alison Alter, who voted against the final proposal for the project in her Northwest Austin District 10. “I hope that it’s evident to everyone the (zoning) process we have is broken and needs to be changed.”
Council Member Kathie Tovo, who represents Central Austin’s District 9, cast the other nay vote. Council Member Leslie Pool of North Austin’s District 7 was absent.
Some of the council members who voted for the project pointed to Austin’s need for more housing, particularly affordable housing. Mayor Steve Adler noted the council navigated some difficult issues to reach this result.
“I’m proud of what we did today,” Adler said. “I think we were able to find the best way forward.”
Alter’s call to examine how Austin City Hall considers large projects such as Austin Oaks received widespread support on the dais.
Council Member Ann Kitchen, who represents South Austin’s District 5, said the process had become “torturous” — a sentiment echoed by Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria, who represents East Austin’s District 3.
The compromise approved Thursday night cut a floor off one of the two residential buildings (capping both buildings at four stories), downsized two parking garages and included a trigger that guarantees at least 27 income-restricted affordable housing units are built.
The vote came after two hours of debate and days of drama at City Hall as rumors circulated that the project’s developer, Dallas-based Spire Realty, was lobbying neighboring landowners to remove their names from a petition challenging the zoning change for the project.
When the council last took up the project in March, the owners of more than 20 percent of the surrounding land had signed the petition, which meant that a likely unreachable nine-vote supermajority of the City Council would be needed for approval. However, by the time Thursday’s vote came, a couple of those landowners had removed their names from the petition, allowing the council to approve the project with a simple majority.
The revisions made Thursday marked at least the third major set of changes made to plans to redevelop the aging office park. Initially, in 2014, Spire proposed a development that included two 17-story towers, which surrounding neighborhoods opposed amid concerns the area’s roads would become clogged with additional traffic.
Spire eventually started a new design process that incorporated neighborhood input. That resulted in a downsized plan that called for 1.2 million square feet of development, instead of the originally proposed 1.6 million, and capped building heights at seven stories. The revamped plan also included parkland, affordable housing and improved stormwater drainage. That plan was backed by one major neighborhood group, the North West Austin Civic Association, and the council gave tentative support in December.
Stiff opposition remained to Spire’s downsized plan, which helped fuel Alter’s runoff win in last December’s runoff against then-Council Member Sheri Gallo. Opponents still worried about the added traffic and the loss of trees on the redeveloped site.
After a raucous debate in March, the council approved a series of changes to the proposal. It axed the proposed hotel and replaced it with a second residential building, more than doubling the proposed housing from 200 units to 425 units — and the affordable housing from 20 to 46 units. In exchange, it would allow the developer to add two stories, making it nine stories total, to an office building that would be located next to MoPac and to build larger parking garages.
Thursday’s proposal scaled back some of those changes, including going from 46 affordable housing units to 41, but allowed the office building to keep its nine-story height.