Staff concerns about the Grove’s traffic were punted, documents show

At the center of the fight over the planned Grove at Shoal Creek development lies one key issue: traffic.

Few things are more important in a zoning fight. Under Austin city code, planning officials can reject a developer’s plans if the project would overwhelm nearby streets with cars, making traffic studies a powerful potential constraint on what can be built.

However, documents obtained by the American-Statesman show that city brass struck some of the concerns that city traffic engineers raised about the Grove from a report filed in March.

While the developer has since filed a new traffic study, prompting the City Council to delay consideration of the massive central city project until September, observers and critics of the Grove say the March documents raise questions about how the city’s management handled the developer’s previous plan:

• The city’s front-line engineers found the proposed development would double traffic on a nearby stretch of Jackson Avenue — from 35th Street northward to Bull Creek Road — and requested that the developer come up with a plan to address the congestion.

However, the final version of the March report struck that request and said “no additional analysis of Jackson Avenue is required at this time” — even though it kept the staff’s finding that traffic would double. Instead, the city would allow the developer to postpone proposing fixes for Jackson Avenue until after the project is approved and adding enough cars to warrant installation of a traffic signal at Bull Creek Road.

With that signal and some added turn lanes at Bull Creek and 45th Street, the city told the Statesman, the developer’s plan “shows that Jackson (Avenue) operates acceptably.”

• The front-line engineers also said the developer, ARG Bull Creek, appeared to dramatically overestimate mass transit service to the development, in turn reducing the projected car traffic to the Grove. The developer’s study presumed that Capital Metro would run the No. 19 bus every 10 minutes, a dramatic increase from the route’s usual 40- to 60-minute intervals. The initial drafts say the assumption was apparently made without consulting Capital Metro.

ARG Bull Creek told the Statesman that the city’s staff suggested the idea, which a city employee familiar with the review said was in response to questions about the ridership figures assumed by the developer.

But the bullet point about transit concerns was struck from the report’s final version. City managers and ARG Bull Creek agreed there was sufficient capacity and service on the current No. 19 route to carry those Grove passengers, the Austin Transportation Department said in a statement.

• The names of all three front-line engineers initially listed on the report — André Betit, Brian Craig and Upal Barua — were removed and replaced by a supervisor’s name, Eric Bollich. “As we discussed, please remove my name from the memo,” Betit wrote in a March 22 email. He earlier sent his bosses an email protesting any changes to the traffic department’s findings.

Additionally, the Transportation Department’s final report punted consideration of other issues identified by engineers to a secondary, administrative review process, which typically doesn’t include public comment.

Dropped names raise questions

City officials and ARG Bull Creek defended the review.

“Due to the high-profile nature of the proposed Grove development project, (the Austin Transportation Department) felt it was more appropriate to have the memorandum … come from the management level of ATD,” city spokeswoman Cheyenne Krause said in a statement.

Krause added: “The substance of the (memo) did not change with the revisions of the names at the top of the page and the staff whose names were switched out all remain intricately involved in the review process.”

In a separate statement, ARG Bull Creek said, “The entire city staff has done an incredible job under intense scrutiny.” The developer described the city’s review as “very, very thorough,” and said its traffic study used “highly conservative trip generation assumptions.”

People familiar with the city’s development review process said the edits and the removal of the front-line engineers’ names from the report were highly unusual.

“I don’t recall ever letting a recommendation out of my department if I didn’t feel like there wasn’t a consensus all the way down,” said Jim Duncan, who led the city’s planning department in the 1980s and currently leads the public commission overseeing the city’s massive building code rewrite. Engineers removing their names “is a signal that someone should ask some questions.”

Longtime Austin developer Ed Wendler said he’d never heard of a situation in which front-line engineers had all pulled their names from a traffic report.

“That at least raises questions, I’ll say that,” he said.

Emails show engineers’ frustrations

ARG wants to build 1,700 residences and 360,000 square feet of office and retail space at the 75-acre site, a largely vacant tract once owned by the state Department of Transportation.

The developer’s estimates say the project will bring an additional 19,000 car trips a day to area roads. The Zoning and Platting Commission signed off last month on allowing ARG to build up to an additional 250,000 square feet for residential uses, though it’s unclear what impact that would have on the traffic projections.

The ARG traffic plan, examined by the staff this spring, called for adding turn lanes at West 45th Street and Bull Creek Road, as well as at Bull Creek and Jackson. Additionally, and controversially, it also called for extending Jackson Avenue through the development to 45th Street — with the developer eventually purchasing two homes on 45th Street to obtain the necessary right of way.

Neighborhood activists protested, claiming that ARG’s plan was insufficient and that the project would flood their streets with traffic. They’ve also complained that city officials ignored these concerns in a rush to push the project forward.

Council Member Leslie Pool, whose District 7 begins on the north side of 45th Street, across from the Grove site, publicly charged earlier this year that the review process had been “truncated.”

“Our line review staff were told to finish up and turn in their notes,” she told the Statesman in April. “My question is, why was the process stopped?”

While it is unclear from the documents if the review process was cut off, they do show that officials repeatedly struck or discounted concerns brought by the city’s engineers about the Grove’s traffic.

Frustrations with ARG’s traffic plan appeared to have been a long-running issue with city engineers, emails show.

“Guess they need to hear that their design does not work for a 5th time,” Betit wrote in a January email, two months before he pulled his name from the city Transportation Department’s review. His email came in response to a colleague’s message seeking information about an upcoming meeting about the project.

In response to Betit’s email, city engineer Scott James wrote Jan. 8 that ARG was asking them to “consider their limited options and willingness to offer ‘creative solutions’ to the identified conflicts.”

James added, “I also know that our repeated requests for ‘more fundamentals and less creativity’ have not been successful.”

This story was updated to clarify the current level of service on the No. 19 bus line.

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