Champion tract may sell, for smaller project tied to lake development

Just when you thought it was over, get ready for another — potentially more peaceful — chapter in the tale of the northwestern Austin development site known as the Champion tract.

City Council members narrowly approved rezoning and waivers of environmental rules last week to allow apartments on the property, near RM 2222 and Loop 360. Now, a new deal will seek to start over and reduce the scope of the project approved.

If successful in getting city approval by Sept. 1, entrepreneur Jonathan Coon will buy the property from Houston-based developers Slate Real Estate Partners and, instead of apartments, build a smaller project, an elderly care home, there.

If Coon can’t get the project approved in time, Slate will move forward on its original proposal, keeping the $1 million Coon already paid for the option to buy, he said.

“Effectively, we have bet on the city of Austin’s ability to go fast,” Coon said, acknowledging that might make some people laugh. “But this is one where we should have unanimous support.”

BACKGROUND: Austin grants rezoning of Champion tract, again, to allow apartments

The 120,000 square feet of senior living space would be half the square footage of the apartments Slate had proposed and would create 75 percent less traffic, one of the main concerns driving neighborhood opposition to the Slate proposal. Most importantly from Coon’s perspective, it would tie into a development he already has planned on the Camelback parcel, virtually alongside the Champion tract, beside the Pennybacker Bridge and Colorado River.

Coon, an entrepreneur who founded 1-800-Contacts, plans to build his own home on the Camelback parcel, along with other houses, a marina, some office space alongside existing offices and a restaurant overlooking the lake. He will make half of the property into a park, so there will be no buildings within 2,000 feet of the bridge and the public can still use it for hiking.

The Lake Austin Collective — a group of neighbors who fought Slate’s project for years and got it sent it back to the council after a lawsuit under the Texas Open Meetings Act — supports Coon’s proposal. The group sent a letter to council members urging them to approve public utility district amendments for the Camelback project, and to incorporate the Champion plan into it.

Also in support is Council Member Alison Alter, whose District 10 includes both properties, but who was outvoted 6-5 in her opposition to the Slate project. Any project with less of an environmental impact would be preferable, she said.

ALSO READ: New owner ponders future of prized Lake Austin tract

Slate will make “significantly less” of a profit selling the property to Coon than developing it as planned, said Mark Stevenson, one of the partners. But the firm is more interested in taking a long view and winning friends in Austin as it negotiates on other potential projects.

“Mr. Coon has presented us an opportunity that is sufficient for us to look back and go ‘We don’t want to be the bad guys,’” Stevenson said. “We can go on doing other developments in Austin. We’d rather be considered for doing things broadly, rather than force something.”

He added that, while he disagreed with neighbors and considered the apartments good for the area, he understood the opposition and was impressed with Coon’s alternative proposal.

Coon wasn’t familiar with the Champion tract until a neighbor suggested he buy it from Slate. He watched nine hours of city meeting debates about it to get caught up. Now, a week after rumblings of lawsuits from either side, he said he hopes to bring a happy ending to the controversy.

“It has been a political football and the compromise shouldn’t be,” Coon said. “It has the support of the developer and our neighbors.”

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