Monday, August 4, 2014

$700 million project set for sensitive Southwest Austin tract

Land was part of holdings that launched Austin’s SOS environmental movement.

By Gary Dinges and Shonda Novak - American-Statesman Staff

Crews are doing prep work for a $700 million project in Southwest Austin that could bring more than 1,800 apartments and townhomes and 1.5 million square feet of commercial space to a sensitive watershed area that is seeing heightened development.
A local environmental group says it will oppose the project — dubbed Tecoma — by Austin-based developer Stratus Properties Inc., opening a new front in a battle that dates to 1990 when the land was part of a larger swath that became a touchstone for some of Austin’s best-known environmental debates.
The Tecoma project is planned for 650 acres on the north side of Southwest Parkway, across from Advanced Micro Devices Inc.’s campus. Tecoma Circle — an extension of William Cannon Drive — is being paved on the site.
By year’s end, Stratus said it expects to start construction on the first phase, 300 apartments and 200,000 square feet of commercial space. The project is approved for 1,856 multifamily units, 1.5 million square feet of mixed-use commercial space and a golf course. It is expected to take about seven years to complete, with the cost projected to top $700 million, said Beau Armstrong, president, chairman and CEO of Stratus.
Tecoma will bring new retail, restaurant and entertainment options to an area that is lacking in them, Armstrong said.
“Every time a resident shops here it will be one less car on MoPac, Highway 71 or Brodie Lane,” he said.
The land was part of the 4,000 acres where Stratus’ former parent company, Freeport-McMoRan, planned its Barton Creek development a quarter-century ago. Austin residents mobilized against the project, with hundreds turning out for an all-night City Council meeting in June 1990 that marked the genesis of the Save Our Springs movement.
Two years later, voters approved the Save Our Springs Ordinance, a measure to protect water quality by putting stricter limits on development in the Barton Creek watershed than existing rules at the time.
The watershed is one of several that feed Barton Springs. Groundwater from the Edwards Aquifer beneath the watershed is the source of drinking water for 70,000 Central Texans, and the quality of the water in the 236,000-acre Barton Springs segment of the aquifer has been degrading over time due to development, said Chris Herrington, an environmental engineer for the city of Austin’s Watershed Protection Department.
City officials say they are allowing Stratus to proceed with the multifamily part of its project under less stringent environmental regulations because Stratus’ preliminary plans were approved before the 1992 passage of the SOS Ordinance. Infrastructure for roads, wastewater treatment facilities and a regional storm water pond also are allowed to proceed on the same basis, city officials say. They say Stratus hasn’t yet applied for approval of commercial development on the tract.
Under the SOS Ordinance, no more than 20 percent of Stratus’ apartment site could have been covered with pavement, buildings and other development that prevents rainwater from seeping into the ground, city officials said. Under the old rules, Stratus can build up to 40 percent of such so-called impervious cover on that site.
Armstrong said the Tecoma project will have water-quality protection measures and sustainable features. The various uses will be clustered, “leaving much of the site in its natural state,” he said.
“We learned very valuable lessons during Austin’s environmental battles during the early 1990s,” Armstrong said. “Stratus has become a huge proponent of sustainable development and has been pursuing LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for all of our major projects. Not only do we believe it makes business sense, but it is also the right environmental approach.”
Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, said that if Stratus cares about protecting Barton Springs, the company needs to comply with the voter-approved SOS Ordinance.
“It’s absurd to say it is protecting the environment when they are claiming grandfathering from the ordinance so they can build under the older, much weaker standards,” Bunch said.
He said his group will oppose Stratus’ efforts to proceed under the older rules: “We will be sitting in and paying attention as they try to move through the approval process.”
Along both sides of Southwest Parkway, development has been growing for some time. Many of the projects were built under less stringent development and water-quality regulations because previously approved agreements predated the SOS Ordinance or because a state law allowed them to get built under older rules.
In the past year or so, however, development seems to be picking up, said Chuck Lesniak, the city’s environmental officer.
“Over the last year or so, we’ve seen more development applications for properties along Southwest Parkway,” primarily for multifamily and office projects, Lesniak said.
Experts say that development in the Barton Springs watershed and other watershed areas is negatively impacting the water quality in Barton Springs, where 750,000 people swim every year.
“Substantial documentation exists that Barton Springs water quality is affected more by development in the Barton Creek watershed than by development from any other watershed, because of the proximity of Barton Creek to the springs,” said Raymond Slade Jr., a retired hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Herrington, the city environmental engineer, said the most recent published report points to a trend of degrading water quality in Barton Springs, with some of the most significant threats being an increase in nitrogen from wastewater disposal and decreasing levels of dissolved oxygen, which salamanders and other aquatic organisms need to breathe.
“We definitely think that urbanization and increased disposal of wastewater in the Barton Springs zone are the cause of nitrogen increases and in general the degrading water quality in Barton Springs,” Herrington said. “The water quality overall is very good, but we see some degrading trends over time, and we’re very concerned about the degrading trends over time.”
In 1995, undeveloped and agricultural land made up 90 percent of the Barton Springs zone. By 2006, undeveloped land had decreased to 51 percent — although the amount of permanently protected lands increased 11 percent during that time, Herrington said.
Stratus has contributed to those protected holdings. In 1994, Stratus gave the Texas chapter of the Nature Conservancy the money to buy more than 4,000 acres of acres of environmentally sensitive habitat along Barton Creek as a permanent environmental preserve. In return, Stratus (then called FM Properties) obtained a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allowing it to build its 4,000-acre Barton Creek development in the habitat of endangered songbirds.
Jeff Francell, the conservancy’s associate director for land protection, said the transaction remains the largest mitigation deal for endangered species in Travis County to date.

1 comment:

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