As the City Council lowered the curtain last week on one years-long development fight, approving a compromise over the Grove at Shoal Creek, another fight over growth prepared to take center stage.
The redevelopment of Austin Oaks, more than two years in the making, got its first tentative vote of approval Thursday from the Austin City Council, setting the stage for the final rounds of battle over the project.
The developer, Dallas-based Spire Realty, wants to replace the office park near Spicewood Springs and MoPac Boulevard with 1.2 million square feet of offices, hotel space, retail and 250 housing units, in buildings up to seven stories tall.
Those plans are a far cry from the 17-story towers that Spire initially pitched for the 31-acre site, which ran into fierce opposition from the surrounding neighborhoods.
The council is scheduled to resume consideration of the project Feb. 2.
“I just want people to know what’s possible,” asked Chris Hajdu, president of the North West Austin Civic Association, whose organization supports the project as currently proposed. “There’s been a lot of fear, uncertainly and doubt planted by all kinds of people.”
The current project is a dramatic shift from what was originally proposed at the site, in a development battle that has thrown the challenges faced by any major development in Austin into sharp relief.
As with developer ARG Bull Creek’s plans for the Grove, neighbors rebelled against Spire’s initial proposal for the Austin Oaks site, complaining about compatibility and traffic.
What followed, though, set the Grove and Austin Oaks apart. After making little progress, Spire agreed in late 2015 to a new design process that heavily incorporated neighborhood input — including from Hajdu’s association — which resulted in dramatic changes to the project. The buildings would be capped at seven stories, there would be five acres of parkland, plus other improvements.
“If you’re going to get the same thing either way, why not get what you want,” Hajdu said, pointing out that the existing zoning already allows Spire to double the size of the office space without offering any concessions. “Current zoning is the devil we don’t know.”
However, some neighbors remain critical of the latest proposal. Austin Oaks, they say, would generate too much traffic (adding an estimated 16,000 trips a day), provide insufficient housing, cut down too many trees (13 of the site’s 70 heritage trees would be removed), and its buildings would be too tall.
All of this, they say, would negatively affect their quality of life.
“There’s a catch-22 of growth,” Kata Carbone, a longtime Allandale resident and neighborhood activist, told council members Thursday. “The better you make your community, the more people will want to live there until it’s no better than any other community.”
Or, as Alison Alter, who ran opposing the Grove and Austin Oaks, put it after winning her Dec. 13 runoff against District 10 Council Member Sheri Gallo: “Our message resonated — people want to stop being the victim of growth.”
Closer examination coming
The fight over Austin Oaks is motivated by the forces that powered the fight over the Grove, easily explained by simple math: Every year, Austin’s population grows by an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 people, figures collected by the city show. They need places to live and ways to get around town.
For years, city planners have tried to direct Austin’s growth inwardly, in an effort to limit sprawl and fulfill the city’s longstanding cultural desire to not become the next Houston or Dallas. But, nearby residents have often opposed these projects, citing concerns about traffic, overcrowding in surrounding schools and damage to the character of their neighborhoods.
All of these issues have come in both the debates over the Grove and Austin Oaks — and City Council members signaled last week they would be closely examining Spire’s housing and traffic proposals when the project comes before them again next year.