Austin City Council Member-elect Alison Alter’s election win Tuesday night threw new doubts on two major developments planned for the West Austin district she will begin to represent next month.
The City Council was scheduled Thursday to vote on final approval for one of the projects, the Grove at Shoal Creek, and to begin consideration of the other, known as Austin Oaks. The two projects have become a focal point in the ongoing debate over Austin’s explosive growth, housing shortages and traffic woes.
Alter, who won the District 10 runoff with 64 percent of the vote, called for the council to pause its consideration of the projects until she is sworn in January. By Wednesday evening, however, no one on the council had made an official request to delay consideration of the items.
“My victory is a mandate for us to make sure we’re taking into consideration the unintended consequences of building,” Alter said Tuesday night after soundly defeating Council Member Sheri Gallo in the runoff election.
Gallo’s drubbing on Tuesday — Alter defeated her by a ratio of nearly 2-1 — was a surprising reversal for the incumbent. Gallo had captured 48 percent of the vote in the Nov. 8 election, leading Alter by 12 percentage points and blowing away two other challengers, but the council member was just shy of the majority needed to win the seat outright.
In Tuesday’s runoff, however, Alter drew heavy support from voters in the precincts around the Grove and Austin Oaks, projects that Gallo has supported. Six of the 10 highest-turnout precincts in the runoff either contained one of those project sites or neighbored the precinct that did.
In one precinct near Austin Oaks, 32 percent of voters turned out, backing Alter with 61 percent of the vote. In the precinct that contains the Grove, 31 percent of voters turned out and 78 percent of them backed Alter. Overall turnout in the District 10 runoff was 22 percent.
“Anger, frustration are the most effective turnout tools, I’ve found,” said Peck Young, a longtime political consultant and professor at Austin Community College. “People rarely turn out in big numbers in a runoff because they’re happy.”
Gallo carried only four out of the district’s 32 precincts on Tuesday. Turnout in three of them was less than 16 percent.
“There’s a second part, Alison must have fanned that fire,” Young added. “Her campaign had to have a focused effort in that area.”
Gallo is the second council member to lose re-election this year. Her departure, along with the defeat of District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman last month, will leave District 8 Council Member Ellen Troxclair as the lone conservative on the council.
The runoff between Gallo and Alter grew ferocious in its closing weeks, with fiercely worded fliers and complaints filed from both camps. Throughout the contentious campaign, the debate focused on the fights over the Grove and Austin Oaks.
Neighborhoods surrounding the Grove at Shoal Creek vigorously opposed developer ARG Bull Creek’s initial plans for the property, which called for building up to 1,500 housing units and 360,000 square feet on 75 acres near 45th Street and Bull Creek Road.
Citing traffic fears and concerns about the impact on the character of their neighborhoods, the Bull Creek Road Coalition, which spearheaded the opposition, campaigned for dramatic reductions to the commercial portion development.
The coalition and ARG reached a mediated agreement earlier this month that trimmed the amount of commercial space by about 10 percent and increased the number of affordable housing units from a promised 110 to 138.
That deal is scheduled for a final vote Thursday. Council Members Kathie Tovo and Greg Casar have floated amendments that would increase the amount of affordable housing, using different mechanisms. Both sides have warned against making significant changes.
“It’s a delicate agreement,” said Sara Speights, the coalition’s president.
Meanwhile, the council is expected to begin consideration of the redevelopment of Austin Oaks, a collection of office buildings at Spicewood Springs Road and MoPac Boulevard.
The developer’s initial dream of building two 17-story towers at the site was nixed by fierce neighborhood opposition, which eventually led to a new design process that incorporated neighborhood input — and what is effectively a new project.
The resulting proposal from Spire Realty, which is supported by the North West Austin Civic Association, reduced the development from about 1.6 million square feet to 1.2 million square feet, and it includes park land and restaurant space the neighborhood otherwise wouldn’t get, said association President Chris Hajdu.
However, that deal has been criticized by some residents who have complained about concerns over traffic, drainage and the preservation of trees.
Update: This story has been updated to clarify that the North West Austin Civic Association supports the Austin Oaks project redesign, which it participated in, but the group does not have a binding deal with the developer.