Grove development needs more affordable housing to get special zoning

For the most part, Central West Austin has been spared the kind of rapid, widespread redevelopment that has changed the face of most of Central East Austin. There are reasons for that, ranging from city policies that steered development east of Interstate 35 to the price of land, which remains significantly more expensive in neighborhoods west of I-35.

But a $500 million mixed-use development of residential units and commercial space is being proposed for unused land in high-end, established West Austin in the 45th Street and Bull Creek Road corridor. While the Grove at Shoal Creek is not a perfect project, it does offer the kind of community benefits that make it a solid contender for a planned unit development, or PUD — if it gets the affordable housing component right.

With only 108 affordable units in a community that will have more than 1,700 apartments, condos, townhomes and single-family homes, that is woefully inadequate to be worthy of PUD zoning or the roughly $8 million in fee waivers the project likely would receive for meeting certain city requirements. We urge ARG Bull Creek Ltd., the developer, to significantly increase affordable housing.

The goal behind a PUD is to give a developer more flexibility than traditional zoning allows in building a project in exchange for benefits prescribed by the city, such as affordable housing or money for the city’s housing fund.

Keep in mind that the city, at the direction of City Manager Marc Ott and then-Mayor Lee Leffingwell, foolishly failed to exercise its option in 2014 of buying the 75-acre tract south of 45th Street from the state of Texas for a bargain price of about $29 million. The land ultimately sold at public auction for $47 million to ARG. It would be inexcusable to allow another opportunity to shape the project to slip through the city’s hands.

When it comes up for discussion on Thursday, we urge council members to keep the PUD option on the table and help Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Kathie Tovo make the project better within limits that are attainable.

We understand the challenge in that charge, given the fierce opposition of a politically influential neighborhood association, the Bull Creek Road Coalition, which in truth has helped improve the project and continues to do so. For instance, ARG added a couple more acres of parkland to its initial proposal in an effort to assuage the neighborhood coalition and city park officials. The project also has become a political hot potato in two City Council elections, District 7 represented by Leslie Pool, who has opposed the Grove project, and District 10 represented by Sheri Gallo, who has supported it.

As with any negotiation, there are limits, which are defined by what is achievable within a PUD agreement between the city and the developer. The point at which demands by either side exceed those limits is the point at which the PUD negotiation collapses — to the detriment of both parties.

The Bull Creek Road Coalition is on the record as supporting a mixed-use development but wants the proposed Grove project scaled back significantly to reduce traffic and noise associated with the 360,000 square feet of office and retail space. Specifically, the neighborhood coalition has set a goal of 265,000 square feet for office and retail but would agree to more residential to compensate. Another priority of the neighborhood coalition is to increase parkland by 4 acres: ARG is proposing 12.88 acres of parkland the city considers usable.

We asked Garrett Martin, co-owner of ARG, to consider freeing up another acre or two for parkland and also provide more flood controls, given Austin’s history of flooding, nearby Shoal Creek and the additional runoff that will come from development. As for traffic, that is a challenge everywhere in the city and should not be a deal-breaker, especially considering the more than $7 million in improvements ARG is pledging for streets and intersections bordering the project, including Bull Creek Road and 45th Street.

Our biggest concern is over the reduction of affordable housing, which has dropped from the initial 180 units to 108. Of those, 72 will be apartments available to households who earn up to $46,690 for a family of four. Another 36 units would be condos sold to families who earn up to $62,250 for a family of four. The latter would remain permanently affordable even after sold to new buyers.

In our view, affordable housing is perhaps the largest single community benefit that can be delivered in such a project because it could help Austin address its displacement factor. It’s important to get that right.

Sadly, Austin has become one of the nation’s most economically segregated cities as redevelopment continues to price lower-income residents and working-income families out of Central Austin neighborhoods — east and west. Austin’s landscape and cultural center are changing as older homes and apartments with affordable rents and mortgages are torn down and replaced with high-dollar properties.

As we noted, something will be developed on that site. The question before the City Council and ARG is whether it will include community benefits, such as affordable housing, or will Austin lose another opportunity to create affordable housing right smack in the center of town.

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