West Park pulls plug on revised PUD

June 6, 2012  

WestParkPUD1

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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3 COMMENTS

  1. By oak_hill_resident, June 5, 2012

    This is a disaster!!! People!!! How long has the Y been thwarted from development by NIMBYs? 30+ years? The roads need help! The retail needs help! The pedestrian access and connectivity need help!

    Oak Hill lies very close in to one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country. We do not live out in the sticks, and we can cooperate together, or have our future decided for us…It’s going to happen soon either way.

    I agree with Sandy Baldridge, this is not a cause for celebration, and what replaces the PUD will inevitably not take our community’s needs into account so respectfully.

    Reply
  2. By Beki Halpin, June 6, 2012

    It is sad to see West Park PUD fault nearly everyone under the sun except themselves for the failure of their PUD application to meet city and TxDOT standards and be adopted. The fact is, the West Park property was hamstrung getting its tens of thousands of daily car trips in and out off US Highway 290; they did not have access to a signalized intersection. If they had met this one criteria, they would not be blaming anyone, they would be getting their PUD adopted.

    So West Park looked to their neighbors for access. The most logical way to get access was to acquire the convenience store at 290 and 1826; West Park surrounds this property and it allows signalized access to both 290 and 1826. I know West Park made attempts to acquire this property, but it did not happen. Next, ACC was approached. They are next door to the east and have access to two signalized intersections at Pinnacle Drive and Convict Hill. ACC did not see a mutual benefit in connecting to West Park, mostly just traffic pouring through their campus to and from the PUD. My neighborhood, Scenic Brook to the north, never said, “Not in my back yard.” The majority of Scenic Brook residents looked forward to the PUD. However, Scenic Brook did not want a direct connection to the PUD, bringing the tens of thousands of cars through our neighborhood. The neighborhoods around Arbor Trails felt the same way when it was developed. Gratefully, West Park agreed that they would not connect to neighborhood streets, also including Windmill Run neighborhood which abuts the PUD on the northwest.

    Lastly, West Park had some hope of signalizing a small street on the western edge of their property where it met US Hwy 290, but TxDOT would not allow it right now, perhaps fearing the congestion another signal would add to the cluster of signalized intersections: Convict Hill, Pinnacle, 1826, El Rey and Scenic Brook. So they did not get signalized access on 290.

    But it is not the fault of the community, their neighbors, city staff, TxDOT, Oak Hill civic groups, Cap Metro, the City Council or my dog that they tried to get a PUD approved on a piece of property that lacked adequate access to an appropriate major thoroughfare. It is actually a fact that many of these groups were squarely behind them. It would be very nice if ACC and West Park could agree on a plan that would benefit both of them equally and allow mutual access through both of their properties; the community is certainly behind this. If this does not happen however, my dog wishes it known that she is not to blame.

    Reply
  3. By David Richardson, June 6, 2012

    Politics if a zero sum game. One side wins and the other loses. In our dreams we hope for win / win solutions. But this political season, Mr. Belton’s decision to pull the plug on the revised West Park PUD plan is a lose lose outcome for all. Bad for the community, bad for traffic, bad for the environment.

    I can’t add much to what Sandy Baldridge said in the last Gazette about spreading the blame far and wide. Her assessment of NIMBYs and misinformation clouding the landscape with gloom and doom is spot on. I’ll add that I encouraged the Gazette to be more circumspect questioning the truthiness of certain contributors. Opinions are not facts. What doesn’t get ink but deserves to be heard (the sin of omission) can be as odious as what does get printed but confuses the community (the sin committed).

    If that sounds a lot like too many media outlets giving unwarranted credence to birthers and global warming deniers, well there it is. The misinformation thrown around during the three years of “Town Center” debate deserved greater scrutiny and intellectual rigor.

    But when it comes to the environment, Austin swims in politics, not science. Whether we are talking about One Texas Center, City Hall, Environmental Groups or the neighborhoods, political calculus guides policy decisions.
    I am certain when Austin voters approved SOS the preservation of Barton Springs was (and still is) the objective of that referendum. The persistent perpetration widely acknowledged among professional engineers, land planners and many others is that SOS is incapable of protecting Barton Springs. Senior scientist Nancy McClintock (ret) of the Austin Watershed Protection noted Austin should be more aggressive sequestering open space. Jeff Jack (Planning Commission) concurs adding “controlling the land is the only way to save Barton Springs.”

    Austin has a problem with sprawl. Mayors and Councilmen come and go. But the legacy of Greg Gurnsey’s tenure as Department Head of Watershed Protection and Development Review is that Austin is the third most congested city of its size in the country. Even while Austin citizens spoke loudly about creating a “compact and connected city” in the Imaging Austin Comprehensive Plan, no language in the new plan suggests any effort to acquire open space or sequester land to slow sprawl outside the City’s jurisdiction.
    I once questioned Gurnsey on the efficacy of the City’s SOS policies protecting Barton Springs. Defensively, he asserted SOS has prevented development in Oak Hill. This is the same Greg Gurnsey that approved the PromiseLand West without community notice or review. Drive out towards Dripping Springs and there’s new commercial development everywhere to serve the burgeoning growth – just beyond the City’s jurisdiction. Twenty-five years hence, fifty thousand new homes will seal the fate of the Barton Springs Salamander.

    It’s normal for there to be differences of opinion even at senior levels of management. One very senior staffer at Watershed Protection said to Tom McDill P.E. and me that “The cities of Bee Cave, Dripping Springs, Kyle and Buda should all erect a bronze statue of Bill Bunch in their town squares in gratitude for the growth of their Cities,”
    What got my attention was that this person said they would deny saying as much if I mentioned their name. I won’t offer the staffer’s name but Tom McDill will acknowledge he heard the same thing.

    What kind of culture do we have where people at senior staff levels see the impact of failed policies and are afraid to voice honest opinions for fear of retribution?

    At the approval of the SOS Redevelopment Ordinance, I thanked then Council-member Leffingwell for his effort. I added there was much more to do and I looked forward to his continued effort. He replied that after SOS Alliance participated for 15 months and then reneged on supporting the effort, he’d “rather stick pins in his leg.”

    I spoke with another former Council-member about needed efforts to refocus Austin’s priorities towards sequestering open space. The Council-member noted that he approached Mayor Wynn with a similar proposal but Wynn declined saying “He didn’t want to expend the political capital.”

    What kind of culture do we have that avoids pursuing needed, even popular policy objectives for fear of political repercussions challenging land use and planning concepts cooked up in some dreamy graduate thesis in the ‘80s? Where is the intellectual rigor in this critical conversation? Austin’s environmental policies threaten the very things we want to protect. Too many possessing knowledge, authority and responsibility betray Austin failing to speak up.

    What’s clear to me now is that a few smoke filled rooms in 78704 and 78736 neighborhoods and the labyrinth at One Texas Center are a far greater threat to Barton Springs, Edwards Aquifer and the environment than the smoke filled rooms in Congress Avenue high rises.

    — From the editor: It has always been the philosophy of the Gazette in covering news—especially when there is controversy—to present the facts, let all sides have their say, and let readers make up their own minds. Mr. Richardson alleges but is not able to identify what misinformation he says is being “thrown around” by us. We are not agenda journalism as some other local publications are, but strive to play it right down the middle of the fairway.
    Our professional and seasoned staff has been covering the West Park and Town Center issues in detail for well over a decade, and I doubt there is anyone around who is more knowledgeable and circumspect about these issues. Although Mr. Richardson does not specify what odious “sins of omission” he thinks the Gazette has committed, we have done scores and scores of stories on these issues over the years and it’s highly unlikely anything has been left out.
    “Opinions are not facts,” Mr. Richardson states. Exactly. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, especially those in the neighborhoods most directly affected by proposed developments (NIMBYs) that Mr. Richardson is so anxious to fact check. Mr. Richardson is equally entitled to his opinions, which we will also not fact check for “truthiness”.

    Reply

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