After hours of debate last night, Austin City Council gave final approval to one of this year’s most divisive zoning cases. The Austin Oaks planned unit development, or PUD, will bring new housing, retail, office space and parkland to the current site of an office park near Spicewood Springs Road and MoPac. Last night’s vote was 8-2.
Council Member Alison Alter, who voted against the rezoning, said the new development could threaten existing affordable housing.
“We can’t take credit for what some will call a good development without accepting the responsibility on the other side, and I hope that we’re prepared to work together to deal with the consequences of this PUD on the affordable housing in the surrounding neighborhood.”
Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo also voted against rezoning. Council Member Leslie Pool was away on official business and was absent from the meeting.
PUD cases are notoriously contentious affairs at City Hall because they grant developers a lot of latitude in zoning designations, allowing developers to utilize more than one land-use category.
In exchange, the development is expected to offer a public benefit like affordable housing. Jon Ruff with the Austin Oaks developer, Dallas-based Spire Realty Group, said the initial intent was not to seek PUD zoning, but Ruff thinks it offers a chance to meet the growing demand for housing.
“Austin matured much faster than anyone in my industry could have imagined, and there was and really still is not enough product to support the growth and resulting demand,” he said.
As part of its PUD zoning, Austin Oaks is required to include affordable housing units. Council Member Greg Casar introduced an amendment allowing a percentage of that housing requirement to be collected in fees, as opposed to being automatically built on site. That money will go to the city’s affordable housing trust fund, allowing the city to put it toward building units elsewhere within the vicinity of the PUD.
“So this does not create any additional benefit for the developer,” Casar said. “This is solely creating more options for the city.”
After the final vote, Alter voiced a desire to mend strained relationships with neighbors who have been divided on the case. She said she wants to explore ways to improve the PUD approval process, saying it’s “broken and needs to be changed.” Several other council members agreed to work with her on that effort.