West Park PUD (ACC Pinnacle at upper right) as illustrated in a power point presentation by the developer
By Ann Fowler
After nearly seven years of meeting with local residents, designing and redesigning a development that was to be the start of an Oak Hill Town Center, Rudy Belton of Buffalo Equities, Ltd., has decided to withdraw his application for a revised planned development unit (PUD) that would have brought a hotel, movie theater and hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail space to the area.
John Joseph, a representative for Belton, blamed a lack of consensus and lack of leadership for the withdrawal of the current application, which was filed August 19, 2009.
In a letter to city staff, Joseph said: “In the three years that the case has been pending, the applicant has conducted over 50 meetings with various neighborhood associations, city staff, TxDOT [Texas Department of Transportation], and countless other Oak Hill groups and has diligently participated in the neighborhood planning process. It is apparent from these meetings that there is no consensus in the Oak Hill community for what this PUD should include and little or no leadership in directing a meaningful planning process that will result in a comprehensive plan of development and traffic connectivity.”
Local reaction to the news runs the gamut from elation to despair, with those happiest at the development’s demise living closest to it. Karon Rilling, who lives close to the edge of the West Park PUD area, attached a copy of the withdrawal letter to an email sent to residents of the South Windmill Run Neighborhood that said, “Oh happy day, oh happy day, that West Park PUD has gone away — or at least backed down to their previous zoning.”
Rick Perkins, who lives across the highway from the proposed project, called the PUD withdrawal a tragedy. He said, “As recently as April our neighborhoods across Highway 290 held a meeting with the West Park PUD developers. About 20 people attended. Everyone who attended the meeting was happy and looking forward to the development. Finally, shopping, work and entertainment within a quarter mile of our homes.”
The property was purchased in 2000. The proposed Westpark Village was envisioned as an upscale retail shopping center, with five restaurants and 700 apartments on the 120-acre site.
In 2005, Oak Hill residents approached Rudy Belton, owner of the West Park property at U.S. 290 West and FM 1826, about creating the beginning of a Town Center. Said Belton at that time: “I’ve been talking with David Richardson and Bruce Perrin of the Oak Hill Association of Neighborhoods (OHAN). They are pushing for what they term is a downtown Oak Hill, a denser, transit-oriented development.”
Belton listened, and had his team talk with residents about the needs of Oak Hill. The need for more baseball fields was mentioned, so Belton included them. Residents living closest to the project complained that the noise and lights would ruin the peace of the neighborhood. Belton took the ballfields out. In a 2009 survey on the project, nearly 60 percent of respondents supported Vertical Mixed Use where residential and commercial is combined in a multi-story building. Belton added it. But no matter what changes he made, he earned no widespread support.
In March, 2010, Bruce Perrin, Dwain Rogers and Kevin Good told OHAN members that they believed it was time to establish a stakeholder group to guide the development of a Town Center in Oak Hill. Besides the West Park PUD plans, ACC had purchased more property near its Pinnacle campus — adjacent to West Park — and Capital Metro had expressed interest in a transit facility in the area.
“We are disinterested parties,” Good told the group, explaining that he, Perrin and Rogers had met with Austin City Manager Marc Ott and City Council aides to request support for the stakeholder planning process. “It’s time to do this because things are starting to happen. There’s probably a fairly narrow window. If you don’t address this situation comprehensively now, you’re going to end up with piecemeal development because ACC can’t sit still forever, Cap Metro’s not going to sit still forever, and frankly the other landowners are not going to sit still forever.”
Even then, a lack of community consensus was apparent. At that time, Rilling said, “It causes me to pause when three gentlemen who have not been visible for awhile reappear with a plan for a community where two do not live. I believe the city has processes in place, with focus groups, envisioning Austin, and the Neighborhood Planning Contact Teams (NPCT) to gain citizen perspective and make appropriate decisions for areas within the Austin city limits.”
More than 100 people attended a Town Center Town Hall meeting held a few months later, with many interested in the idea of a Town Center. Local landscape architect and land planner Aan Coleman of Coleman and Associates said the five major landowners and two or three others were not talking to each other “because they don’t have to. They don’t have to work together unless they’re motivated to do so.” She added that creating a town center was an opportunity to design something with life, connectivity, and a sense of place. “One property does not make a place,” she added.
Some expressed hesitation on letting OHAN be the force to move the Town Center process forward because they were afraid some OHAN board members may have had a stake in the outcome, but Carol Cespedes urged at the time: “OHAN represents the largest section of Oak Hill. I hope we will support it energetically and further increase the level of participation and awareness of OHAN.”
Many of those attending the Town Center Town Hall indicated a preference for the ‘Y’ area for that town center, but no true definition was given. Asked later, some preferred a development “at” the ‘Y,’ while others felt anywhere along the general corridor was fine.
South Windmill Run resident Tom Thayer is one who felt “at” the ‘Y’ seemed the optimal location of a Town Center, and he still believes one is possible despite the withdrawal of the revised PUD for West Park. He said: “I don’t think this is the end of the Town Center because the West Park PUD was never supposed to be the town center or was only supposed to be part of it. In addition, ACC [Austin Community College] is still pursuing further development in conjunction with their campus expansion and there are possibilities for future redevelopment of the properties along Oak Meadow and the shopping center going down toward Highway 71.” Thayer believes a smaller West Park development could help spur growth at the ‘Y.’
Locals have expressed the need for connectivity among those landowners. Last December, representatives of West Park approached the Austin Community College Pinnacle Campus next door about connectivity, but were rebuffed. In a letter dated December 19, 2011, ACC Executive Vice President Ben Ferrell said, “The ACC Board of Trustees has indicated that they have no interest in pursuing connectivity as proposed with the West Park PUD.”
In the years the expanded West Park PUD has waited for the community to embrace it, a movie theater has recently opened at MoPac and Slaughter Lane, and a hotel is under construction at U.S. 290 West and McCarty Lane.
Sandy Baldridge, former OHAN president, was not surprised that Belton pulled the plug on the PUD, saying many share the blame for the project’s failure. She said: “This withdrawal lies squarely on every resident, every neighborhood, every civic group, every landowner, the City staff and the City Council, ACC, Capital Metro, and TxDOT – no one in this process is without some contribution to the project’s demise. Neighborhoods have been sown, unnecessarily, with mental seeds of gloom and doom. The Chicken Little ‘the sky is falling, the sky is falling,’ all developers are bad, growth is bad, no change is better than any change, permeates nearly every meeting I attend.”
Baldridge expressed frustration that the city neglected to step in and help in Oak Hill, yet found money to assist similar projects in other areas of the city. She said, “In this case, those who could really do something to master plan the ‘Y,’ those public entities to which we all pay taxes, sat on their hands and did nothing. In the meantime the Downtown Plan was given $3 million to plan. The Riverside Corridor project received money for planning. The Imagine Austin Plan cost $3 million. The Domain, Mueller, the University Overlay, all got promoted through city staff and Council.”
Added Baldridge: “I caution those bursting with excitement over this withdrawal. What seemed like a similar victory for the demise of the Wildflower Commons Project at S.H. 45 SW and MoPac is going to happen at the ‘Y.’ A once master-planned and environmentally superior project is now giving way to numerous single-family home developments — one obscure project after another, that is perfectly allowed under the current City Land Development Code, and will collectively yield more impervious cover, less water and environmental protection, and produce more vehicles miles traveled, than would the original project. To just say, ‘No, not in my back yard,’ rarely leads to any compromise or improvement.
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