Austin Oaks development clears hurdle but its future remains uncertain


City Council moves forward with revised Austin Oaks project after hours of heated debate.

Council Member Alison Alter criticized her colleagues for approving developer “giveaways.”

Council changes could more than double the site’s affordable housing and increase the height of two buildings.

The planned redevelopment of a Northwest Austin business park appeared to be living on borrowed time early Friday, falling short of the nine-vote supermajority support it would need for final City Council approval.

Still, the council voted 7-4 to move the project forward after more than four hours of public testimony and contentious, sometimes rancorous debate on the dais that resulted in major changes to the Austin Oaks project — even though it remained unclear what the end game might be.

“I can’t support what’s come out tonight,” said Council Member Alison Alter, whose District 10 includes the project. “I’m disappointed in my colleagues for moving forward without understanding the numbers.”

She then criticized her colleagues for accepting major revisions that added two floors to one office building in exchange for additional affordable housing and funding for traffic improvements — labeling the changes “giveaways to the developer.” She added: “That’s on you.”

RELATED: Higher turnout near Austin Oaks, the Grove fueled Alter’s victory

Council Members Delia Garza and Sabino “Pio” Renteria took issue with that characterization.

“It’s a two-way street,” Garza responded. “We can characterize this as a horrible thing our colleagues did, or we can respect our colleagues’ decisions.”

Renteria said, “For someone to tell me that I’m in somebody’s pocket, I take that personally, and I can’t support people like that.”

Much remained unclear after the debate, which started Thursday night and ran into the early morning hours of Friday.

The council didn’t set a date for final consideration of Spire Realty’s plan for the site at Spicewood Springs Road and MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1). Nor was it apparent where supporters will find the extra two votes needed for final approval. A nine-vote supermajority is needed because more than 20 percent of the surrounding property owners filed a petition protesting the zoning change.

The four nays — cast by Alter and Council Members Ora Houston, Leslie Pool and Kathie Tovo — came from those who have frequently criticized infill development.

In the hours after the vote, though, Spire attorney Michael Whellan said he was “hopeful there will not be a valid petition,” which would remove the supermajority requirement, when the council casts its final vote. He declined to provide details.

Scope of project expanded

The concluding exchange between Alter, Renteria and Garza was one of several heated moments between the District 10 representative and her colleagues.

At one point, Mayor Steve Adler loudly cut off Alter after she repeatedly interrupted him and Council Member Greg Casar, who had brought a package of amendments she vehemently opposed.

Casar’s amendments added a floor to the existing residential building, swapped the proposed hotel for a second residential building, more than doubling the amount of affordable housing; and provided an additional $800,000 in traffic improvements. In exchange, the developer would be allowed to add two more stories to a proposed office building along MoPac, making it up to nine stories tall.

The end result would be a project that has 425 apartments, including 46 affordable units, up from Spire’s original proposal of 200 apartments, which included 20 affordable units. Spire will also pay for a total of $1.6 million in traffic improvements, doubling the previously proposed amount.

“If we aren’t going to find a way to grow within our 1970s, 1980s sites, we’re just going to see more sprawl,” said Whellan, the developer’s attorney.

Alter also proposed swapping the hotel for a second residential building and requiring the developer to provide an additional $800,000 for street and traffic improvements, but fiercely opposed letting Spire add floors to the office building as a way to pay for the changes. Her proposal likely would have increased the amount of housing to 375 apartments, of which 38 were projected to be affordable.

Opponents make emotional pleas

The council debate followed roughly two hours of public comment, which ranged from the standard speeches and PowerPoint presentations to a heavy-metal infused performance art showcase.

One opponent’s presentation included a homemade film montage of eggs cracking over promises the developer allegedly broke and was overlaid with dramatic classical music.

“Trust, it’s like an egg,” Northwest Hills resident Idee Kwak told the council, as the video played on the screens overhead. “You trust it, until it’s broken.”

She later added: “Do you really think you can take the word of these people? I don’t think so!”

Her 15-minute presentation built toward a crescendo.

WATCH: Resident rips up diorama to heavy metal music

She stood next to a giant diorama of the development as heavy metal blared from her laptop and — with the help of volunteers — ripped off the diorama’s trees and tossed them onto the floor, declaring the council should never trust Spire to keep its promises.

Another speaker said the additional traffic generated by the development would endanger children and pedestrians in the area.

“If you raise your hand to signal an ‘aye’ vote on this Austin Oaks (zoning), imagine blood running down your arm,” said Kathleen Vermillion. “That’s the blood of children of Northwest Austin, Northwest Hills who are merely trying to get to soccer practice, get to volleyball practice, get home from their schools.”

Building nothing not an option

The plan Spire brought to the council Thursday night called for building 1.2 million square feet of office space, retail and housing to replace the office park on the site.

The proposal is different and smaller from the one first floated by Spire in 2014, which called for two 17-story towers. Surrounding neighborhoods opposed it, and Spire agreed to rethink its plans and start a new design process that incorporated their input.

The result was the downsized plan, which capped buildings at seven stories, included parkland and market-rate and affordable housing, improved stormwater drainage retention and reduced the amount of paved or covered surfaces. That plan was backed by one major neighborhood group, the North West Austin Civic Association, and the council tentatively approved it in December.

Supporters of the plan point out that building nothing isn’t a likely option. Current zoning on the site would allow Spire to roughly double the existing office space at the site without providing any additional housing or parkland.

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