Nearly all the sticking points in a years-long tussle between the Garza family and City Hall over the amount of development allowed on an environmentally sensitive tract in South Austin had been resolved by the end of 2013.
But a key question remains: How many car trips — and thus how many apartments, offices and shops — will be allowed on the 32.8-acre tract?
The current limit on the property along MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1), just north of William Cannon Drive, is a daily average of 6,000 car trips. The Garza family is asking the City Council to more than double that cap.
A would-be buyer for the land approached the Garza family last year, and the property could ultimately be developed with offices, restaurants, a shopping center and 208 apartment units. Of the ranch land purchased by the late Ben Garza in the 1920s, this site is the only piece that the family hasn’t sold or donated.
The issue, which is on the council’s Thursday meeting agenda, will be a litmus test of the freshly minted mayor’s and council members’ proclivities when it comes to traffic, the environment and neighborhood concerns.
Council Member Ellen Troxclair, whose District 8 in Southwest Austin includes the site, said it was a “really complex issue” and that her job was to facilitate talks between developers and neighbors.
How Mayor Steve Adler handles the issue will be closely watched. His critics on the campaign trail questioned his environmental track record by pointing to his involvement in a lawsuit on a different piece of the old Garza tract.
A decade ago, Adler represented Lowe’s, which had plans to build a store on a site that Austin had quietly placed in its jurisdiction in a deal with the city of Sunset Valley. Adler argued that Austin’s Save Our Springs regulations shouldn’t apply to the property, and the case ended in a settlement.
Around the same time, Adler represented the Garza family in a lawsuit that resulted in a court ruling that some of the family’s ranch land wasn’t subject to the Save Our Springs rules.
Now as mayor, Adler said he doesn’t see a need to recuse himself from a vote on the car trips allowed for the last piece of the Garza tract because he has no interest in the property.
The 2013 deal
Parts of the last remaining piece of the Garza property fall under the Save Our Springs environmental regulations, and parts don’t. The property was zoned in 2007 for commercial and mixed use, and, at the time, the current 6,000 trips per day limit was assigned as a placeholder, said Jerry Rusthoven, the city’s planning manager.
But with a patchwork quilt of environmental regulations on the land, it was tough to develop. The Garza family and city staffers tried to reach an agreement, but, when talks didn’t pan out, the family’s advocates persuaded legislators to threaten to weaken Austin’s environmental rules unless the city negotiated a deal.
The Garza family, under that 2013 agreement, is allowed to build near environmental features such as a creek and sinkhole, and to pave or develop 43.5 percent of the property surface with “impervious cover.” That’s more than would normally be permitted under the city’s Save Our Springs environmental rules, and it required approval from a supermajority of the previous City Council.
In exchange, the Garza family agreed to build a water quality treatment system on their land, which they’ve estimated would cost about $2 million. The family also donated land for the Violet Crown Trail and $25,000 for a trail head.
Zoning changes are typically separate from such an agreement, but former Council Member Laura Morrison said in a recent interview she tried to make the existing 6,000 cap on car trips part of the 2013 deal. The Garza family refused, she said. And Morrison, a deciding vote on the agreement, wouldn’t support the larger volume of trips the owners wanted.
City staffers, for their part, didn’t push to include a trip cap in the deal because they feared it might lose them the six-vote supermajority, Rusthoven said. The city at that point also hadn’t reviewed a traffic analysis for the property, he said.
An analysis the Garza family submitted to the city in 2012 and updated in 2014 showed that proposed development on the property would generate 16,204 car trips a day — or 13,906 net trips if other factors were considered, such as cars that would stop by the site on the way to somewhere else.
The Garza family’s representatives were left with the impression that raising the trip cap to that level would be a fairly routine matter, compared with past contentious fights with the city, attorney Dan Wheelus said. It would also only require a majority vote.
Pushback from neighbors, environmentalists
Some neighbors and environmental activists say the Garza family might be asking for too much.
The proposed number of trips is out of line with other developments, said Steve Beers, president of the Save Barton Creek Association. The nearby Lowe’s generates 158 trips per acre, while a Wal-Mart has 454 trips per acre. Raising the trip cap to more than 16,000 on the last piece of Garza land would result in 464 trips per acre, Beers wrote.
Chuck Lesniak, a city environmental officer, said the agreement the City Council approved in 2013 would result in no increase in pollutants in runoff from the property compared to the current amount from the undeveloped land. That determination was based on the amount of impervious cover and shouldn’t change if more car trips are allowed, Lesniak said.
Oak Hill resident Darryl Pruett said the streets surrounding the development are already congested.
“It is a real problem,” said Pruett, who is president of the Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods. “You’re basically saying, ‘We want to pour more traffic onto an intersection that is already failing.’”
City staff members note the Garza family would chip in $44,248 toward $566,303 in transportation projects meant to provide some relief at MoPac and William Cannon Drive; Brodie Lane and William Cannon; and Brodie Lane and Ben Garza Lane.