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Herman: Developer and Northwest Austin neighbors seek peaceful co-existence

I live in Stop the PUDville. The signs are everywhere.

“Stop the PUD,” they say, as they have for a couple of years on lawn after lawn, threatening to outrank the neighborhood deer as the most common front-yard sight in Northwest Hills.

Unlike the divided sentiment on the deer, I’ve yet to see a pro-PUD sign in Stop the PUDville.

As I explain to bewildered visitors to our neighborhood, PUD stands for planned unit development. In 2014, Dallas-based Spire Realty rolled out its plan to transform its Austin Oaks business park into a PUD with 1.6 million square feet of commercial space and several hundred apartments. Included were two 17-story buildings that would have been the tallest between Waco and downtown Austin.

So far, however, thanks to neighborhood opposition, the project, including a revised one from Spire, is DOA at City Hall, where approvals are needed.

Austin Oaks is an oddly low-visibility cluster of 12 buildings built between 1973 and 1985 and adding up to 445,322 square feet of office space on 31 gently rolling acres near MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and Spicewood Springs Road. The land on which it sits long ago fell below its highest and best — and most profitable — use.

To date, instead of transforming Austin Oaks, pretty much all Spire has managed to do is transform Northwest Hills, a long-established neighborhood that’s part of an influential neighborhood association, into Stop the PUDville.

And that’s why we’re headed for a week-long charrette in late January. Charrette is French for cart or wagon, a reference to the conveyance Stop the PUDville residents want to use to haul Spire President Jon Ruff’s butt back up I-35 to Dallas.

Actually, that’s incorrect. Pardon my French.

In this context, charrette, according to the Northwest Austin Civic Association, is a “multi-day design exercise that brings stakeholders, including neighbors, together with a multidisciplinary team of designers, engineers and other specialists.” And then, as if by magic, “the outcome of the charrette is a consensus-based design for the site, which can be used to guide the redevelopment.”

And then everyone lives happily ever after.

In this case the deadline is March, when city officials are scheduled to take another look at what’s next for Austin Oaks.

The charrette is set for Jan. 24 to 29 at Austin Oaks. In advance, there have been community information meetings and “vision and values workshops.” The first of the latter was Dec. 16. The next one is Jan. 12 at the Austin Board of Realtors, 4800 Spicewood Springs Road.

These pre-charrette sessions are not intended to be confrontational, but sometimes things don’t work out as intended.

Passions run high as talk heats up

I learned a lot at the Dec. 16 vision and values workshop at St. Mathew’s Episcopal Church on Mesa Drive, including the fact that some of my neighbors fear the week-long session later this month will be more charade than charrette.

“Making a place people will love,” said the slide on the screen as we entered the church meeting hall. The discussion was led by several folks, including neighborhood resident Ben Luckens, a city planning consultant who is project manager for the charrette.

The star of the show is Doug Farr, a respected Chicago architect selected by the neighborhood association to be “design facilitator” for the charrette. Spire is picking up the $28,000 tab for Farr’s services.

Remember, the goal of this whole thing is to come up with a design the neighborhood can support. Also remember that some of the neighbors support nothing, as in leaving Austin Oaks as is. And also remember that Spire bought the property in 2013 with an eye on maximizing its profitability.

So things are kind of tense right about now. Spire insists the original PUD plan is dead and all that exists is a blank slate awaiting neighborhood input. Collaboration is the goal. Conflict is the reality. That’s why the low-key Farr seems like Mr. Right for a process with lots of potential to go wrong.

Luckens got things started at the Dec. 16 session with a how-we-got-here synopsis: “We decided that rather than continuing on with fruitless negotiations that kind of get us going in circles, we’ll take a collaborative approach and design the site, which is what we’re doing with a blank sheet of paper.”

He laid out the ground rules: “Everyone treats everyone courteously. We’re all grown-ups. We’re in church before Christmas.”

Farr then led us through what he called Town Planning 101, a concise history of why cities look like they do. “You can change places and places do change,” he said, probably to the chagrin of some in the hall.

Eventually, he worked around to what Austin Oaks could be.

“I believe, without a market study done — and I’m going out over my skis here — we should be able to pull off both sides of a main street, one block long, with interesting uses, restaurants and other things that serve the neighborhood,” Farr said.

That could be nice for our neighborhood residents. And maybe we could build a wall to make sure nobody from outside the neighborhood — and the traffic they bring — could use it. And maybe we can go Trump and make them pay for the wall.

When Farr wrapped up, we moved to Q-and-A. “And we have our first question,” said Kareeshma Ali, Farr’s associate. It came from a young man and was more challenge than question.

“Y’all mentioned this a few times: Market potential and financial viability and change is going to happen, so we might as well lean into it, right?” he said with an edge.

His bottom line was he wanted to know the developer’s bottom line. “Because we’re going to go through this charrette process here for the next couple of months and we’re going to make a lot of proposals. But the developers have a baseline, and they’re kind of holding that back to their vests.”

Farr said “the message we’ve got from the developers is it’s a blank piece of paper”

After some more back and forth, Farr felt the need to say something about the P word.

“You mentioned PUD,” he said, “and I googled it: ‘No PUD,’ ‘anti-Pud’ and all this sort of stuff. Let me tell you what I think a PUD is and why I’m perplexed why there is a campaign against it. A PUD is a zoning tool that grants flexibility and (PUDs) can be used as a giveaway. There’s no adult supervision. Or in the way that we’re envisioning it is a PUD that has a whole raft of stuff stapled to the back, which is what we are generating in January.”

After more back and forth, Sean Compton, a member of the development team, lobbed the nuclear notion — Spire believes it doesn’t need anybody’s approval to build something the neighbors wouldn’t like. “They’re asking us to help,” Compton said.

“He’s exactly right,” Ruff added, insisting Spire could develop 800,000 to 1 million square feet of buildings under current zoning.

“What we’ve said is we don’t want to do that,” Ruff said. “We don’t think that’s the best product. We don’t think that that results in the best benefit for you guys and, frankly, we don’t think it results in the best benefit for us.

“So let’s come together. Let’s put a plan together than is better in every way possible.”

Can you feel the love? One woman on hand couldn’t, saying “I feel like they took the risk to buy this property. It’s not our responsibility for them to make money.”

Does it seem to be getting warm in here?

“We’ll give you three houses and a taco shop. We’re done,” a man yelled.

Luckens, the city planning consultant, tried to cool things down, referring to the poster-size paper on each desk: “That’s what this piece of paper here is for, for you to write down what your objectives are, period.… And if you say what your objective is is to leave this as is, then that’s your objective.”

He added this about life in Austin today. I think it was about change.

“I had this insight going downtown to a seven o’clock (a.m.) freakin’ meeting at the Urban Land Institute. And I was thinking as I was driving down this traffic, I was thinking, ‘Gosh, this traffic.’ When I used to work downtown it wasn’t this bad at eight o’clock. And all of a sudden I had this epiphany. And I say that in a church. The epiphany was that there’s no more dollar pitchers at the Armadillo beer garden.”

Then there was more high-stress cross talk, leading Luckens to turn to others on the charrette team and, not intended for public consumption, say, “Jesus, that’s why I don’t do this.”

Then, to Ruff, he said, “This is why I do not do charrettes.” A woman beseeched everyone to tone it down and “get moving on this process,” which we did, save for one man complaining about someone “badgering us.”

Farr, trying by example to get folks to use their indoor voices, told the man, “I appreciate your strength of conviction.”

This guy is good. Every family needs one of these.

North West Austin Civic Association President Pat Statz, another calming presence, reassured everyone that the charrette is “the most effective way to bring people together with the owner.” And, she added, it’s “much preferable that we participate in building this plan with him than to have him go away and come up with some other million-square-foot plan that we again have to go into protests and angry discussions about.”

As the table discussions started, Rudd told me he is committed to the blank-slate approach.

“We put together a plan that we thought made sense from an urban design standpoint, a modern design standpoint and it wasn’t well liked,” he told me. “So that’s why we’re going through the process to find out what is well-liked.”

Doing nothing is not an option?

“Correct,” Ruff said. “It’s just the reality.”

‘Trade-offs rather than absolutes’

The table discussions produced what you’d expect from the neighbors. Folks want walking areas, low buildings, tree preservation, hidden parking, native plants, restaurants, playgrounds, an amphitheater, local businesses, a small boutique hotel and other stuff that might be sky pie.

“Do not make Austin Oaks look like Houston of Dallas,” one table spokesperson said.

Farr noted that several tables wanted to save all the trees and not have tall buildings.

“If you keep all the trees,” he said, “visualize it: The buildings have to get taller. There’s no other place for them to go. So if you mean (save) all the trees, expect taller buildings. … Expect that there will be a series of trade-offs rather than absolutes.”

Luckens later offered a charrette preview, noting it will include designers who will be “spending 14 hours a day working on a slurry of Skittles and Mountain Dew.”

At meeting’s end, Farr said he was good with how it went. “We went through a little rough patch but I think we righted ourselves.”

Be prepared for more of that, he cautioned. “The crisis we had — whatever it was, about an hour ago — will repeat in the charrette. So I want to talk about this, which is there comes to be a point of despair. It’s a combination of the Skittles, the fatigue and personalities, all those sort of things.”

He predicted things would go sour several days into the charrette, when it will seem “like the plane is going to crash and we’re going to end the week and we won’t have consensus.”

Keep calm and charrette on, he advised. All will be well.

“It happens every time. The plane straightens out. It doesn’t hit the ground. It flies and you get home.”

If he’s right, there could someday indeed be joy in Stop the PUDville.

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