Could planned project set off MoPac development boom?

Neighbors say dense project with proposed towers doesn’t fit with area, could worsen traffic problems.

Two towers that would be among the tallest buildings outside of downtown Austin are being proposed as part of project that envisions bringing 1.6 million square feet of development to MoPac Boulevard and Spicewood Springs Road.

Some area residents oppose the project, which they say could set a precedent for other tall buildings — both along MoPac and elsewhere throughout the city — that would encroach on surrounding neighborhoods.

The developer behind the project is Dallas-based Spire Realty Group LP. Spire’s project is one of several office and residential developments planned or under construction along Spicewood Springs Road.

Real estate experts say the proposed development could set off a wave of development along MoPac.

Spire’s site is a 31-acre tract that now houses Austin Oaks, an office complex with 12 buildings of two to three stories each and totaling 450,000 square feet. Spire is seeking a zoning change that would allow it to construct buildings of three to five stories on the parts of the site closest to residential areas, and, on the parts closer to MoPac, two office buildings that would tower 17 stories each. Height is currently limited to 60 feet on the site.

The project would comply with city rules meant to ensure that commercial projects don’t impinge on residential areas, said Steve Drenner, the Austin attorney representing Spire in the zoning case.

Plans call for up to 610 apartments and townhomes in the three- to five-story buildings, plus retail and restaurant space. The soonest construction is planned to start is around 2020, after existing office leases expire. The project would be built in phases over 10 years or so. In all, an estimated 1.6 million square feet of development is planned. By comparison, Barton Creek Square mall is 1.43 million square feet.

The project must go through an approval process that will include presentations before the city’s Environmental Board and Zoning and Platting Commission. The Austin City Council will have the final say on the zoning change, which could come before it by the end of the year.

Drenner said the project is consistent with Imagine Austin, a long-term plan the city approved in 2012 that includes recommendations for guiding growth, such as concentrating dense development in strategic areas to make the city more compact and walkable.

One of the places the plan recommended clustering growth is at MoPac and Spicewood Springs Road, Drenner said.

“To some degree this will be test of Imagine Austin — did we mean it?” Drenner said.

But Stefania Rigo, who has lived in the Northwest Hills area near the proposed development for 20 years, said, “We are outraged that this would bring high-density, tall buildings on edge of a single-family home neighborhood. Imagine Austin never in its wildest dreams imagined this.”

Joyce Statz, president of the Northwest Austin Civic Association, which represents about 4,150 households in the area, said the proposed project doesn’t fit with the character of the surrounding neighborhoods. The project also would worsen problems with traffic and overcrowded schools in the area, she said.

“The neighborhood is saying, ‘This makes no sense,’” Statz said. “It doesn’t meet our needs, and it aggravates our problems.”

Statz said the Northwest Austin Civic Association is polling its members on the project, and two other neighborhood groups plan to survey their members as well. In all, four groups are collaborating in their efforts regarding the project: the Northwest Austin Civic Association, the Allandale Neighborhood Association, the Balcones Civic Association and the North Shoal Creek Neighborhood Association, which combined represent more than 10,000 households, Statz said.

Austin, like some other cities across the countries, is seeing new mixed-use development crop up in areas outside of the city’s center, presenting an alternative to downtown.

Charles Heimsath, a local real estate consultant who has worked on the Austin Oaks proposal, said new development is inevitable along MoPac.

“Nobody likes change, but sometimes change is good, and it ends up benefiting the neighborhood with more opportunities to live, work and enjoy new retail,” Heimsath said. “Thirty years ago, this was the suburbs, but it’s not anymore. Today, this corridor is dated and ripe for redevelopment.”

However, he noted that there are barriers that will restrict large swaths of MoPac from development.

“You’ve got flood plain issues on the east side, and you have neighborhoods that are built hard up to the freeway on the west side,” he said. “But there are a number of existing developments such as MoPac and 2222 that are likely to undergo a similar transformation.”

At the Austin Oaks site, Drenner said the low-rise buildings planned for apartments and retail would “create a buffer” between the closest single-family residences and the tallest buildings that are proposed closest to MoPac. Concerns about setting a precedent for taller buildings at other intersections along MoPac are unfounded, he said. That’s because many of those intersections are closer to single-family neighborhoods than the Spicewood/MoPac intersection, and thus would be bound by city rules requiring new development not to infringe on nearby neighborhoods.

Drenner said he has met with residents who live near Austin Oaks and listened to their concerns. The development team, he said, “is evaluating whether we would make changes to the plan based on that feedback.”

“This is not a fully cooked meal yet,” Drenner said.

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