Texas Monthly, Nov. 9, 2021
The 145-acre Camelback property on Lake Austin, just west of the iconic Pennybacker Bridge, rises straight up a series of limestone cliffs to a densely forested ridge 380 feet above the water ... READ FULL STORY
Austin Business Journal, Nov. 9, 2021
Three years ago, 1-800-Contacts founder and real estate developer Jonathan Coon made waves when he proposed a multimillion-dollar lakefront development that could've included houses, a restaurant and office space ... READ FULL STORY
Austin American-Statesman, Nov. 9, 2021
A landmark hilltop on Lake Austin — one of the last undeveloped tracts overlooking the lake — will be developed with a standalone condo project to be operated by Four Seasons Hotel and Resorts ... READ FULL STORY
Four Points News, July 18, 2021
Members of Lake Austin Collective toured The Reserve at Lake Austin construction site recently at 6401 RM 2222 near City Park Road ... READ FULL STORY
Four Points News, Mar. 28, 2021
Construction is now in full swing at The Reserve at Lake Austin after a slight delay from COVID ... READ FULL STORY
Austin Monitor, Dec. 2, 2019
Once again, the city of Austin finds itself on the losing end of a legal battle over public information ... READ FULL STORY
Four Points News, Jan. 22, 2019
A high profile piece of real estate in the Four Points area — Champion Tract 3 off RM 2222 at City Park Road — has recently sold and is slated to become a senior living complex ... READ FULL STORY
Austin Business Journal, Nov. 2, 2018
Development plans for a picturesque lakefront tract in West Austin cleared Austin City Council this week ... READ FULL STORY
Austin Monitor, Sept. 24, 2018
After nearly four and a half hours of testimony and discussion, and two votes due to some confusion over the conditions attached to a motion, the Environmental Commission endorsed the environmental superiority of the Camelback PUD ... READ FULL STORY
Austin Business Journal, Aug. 16, 2018
The morning I met the man who transformed the contact lens industry, he was wearing rimless glasses ... READ FULL STORY
Austin American-Statesman, Feb. 21, 2018
Just when you thought it was over, get ready for another — potentially more peaceful — chapter in the tale of the northwestern Austin development site known as the Champion tract ... READ FULL STORY
Austin American-Statesman Feb. 2, 2018
By Philip Jankowski
It’s been 20 years, so what’s another two weeks?
That’s what the Austin City Council decided Thursday evening about the controversial plans to develop a swath of Northwest Austin known as the Champion tract ... READ FULL STORY
The Austin Chronicle, Dec. 1, 2017
District Judge Scott Jenkins has voided a November 2016 vote at City Council that amended an existing legal agreement concerning Champions Tract 3 to ease land use restrictions and (along with a rezoning request Council approved simultaneously) pave the way for construction of a 325-unit apartment building on the land at 2222 and City Park Road ... READ FULL STORY
Four Points News, Nov. 29, 2017
Last week, a district judge ruled that the city of Austin violated the Open Meetings Act in the suit led by the Lake Austin Collective Inc. against the
city on June 5 ... READ FULL STORY
The Austin Chronicle, Sept. 29, 2017
A Travis County district court is once again serving as referee to a dispute between the city of Austin and its residents over the development of Champions Tract 3, at the corner of 2222 and City Park Road. On Friday, Sept. 22, Judge Gisela Triana granted a temporary injunction ... READ FULL STORY
The Austin Chronicle, June 30, 2017
Champions Tract 3, a slim triangle of undeveloped land along FM 2222 in what still looks like relatively unspoiled Texas Hill Country, may soon have a new landmark. Rezoning and special exceptions that the Austin City Council granted last November would allow a five-story, 325-unit apartment complex to be built there, ... READ FULL STORY
Austin Monitor, June 6, 2017
A group of Lake Austin homeowners on Monday sued the city of Austin, claiming that the city’s notice concerning the zoning and waiver of environmental regulations on what is known as the Champion tract, was inadequate and therefore violated the Texas Open Meetings Act ... READ FULL STORY
Austin American-Statesman, June 6, 2017
Following through on an ultimatum he issued two months ago, attorney and former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire filed a second lawsuit against the city of Austin on Sunday alleging Texas Open Meetings Act violations ... READ FULL STORY
A sign of the times on a showstopping Hill Country peak.
By Tom Foster
The 145-acre Camelback property on Lake Austin, just west of the iconic Pennybacker Bridge, rises straight up a series of limestone cliffs to a densely forested ridge 380 feet above the water. It’s as close to a proper mountain as you can find in Central Texas. And what a mountain. From the top, you can see the sweeping semicircular curve of the Colorado River below, and off to the east, a gap in the hills frames the Oz-like cluster of high-rises in downtown Austin, ten or so miles away.
It’s here that property owner Jonathan Coon has built a four-story metal-frame viewing platform that rises above the treetops and affords lucky visitors one of the most commanding views in the state. The platform won’t be here for long, though: It exists only so that Coon can sell people on his new plan, announced Tuesday, to turn the Camelback into the site of an ultra-luxury condo community with 179 cliffside homes, a private marina, a sprawling athletic center with outdoor and indoor tennis courts—and an air-conditioned, glass-box funicular that will whisk residents from hilltop to lakeside in two minutes flat. Four Seasons, the luxury resort company famous for such properties as the Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat on the French Riviera as well as high-end hotels and residences in Austin, Houston, and Dallas, will manage the property, to be known as the Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin.
Coon, who gave a private tour of the site a day before his big announcement, explained that he has been pursuing the dream of this development for a decade. The 51-year-old Richardson native with a wholesome, boyish smile made a fortune at a young age when he founded 1-800 Contacts from his dorm room at Brigham Young University in 1995. He built the Utah-based company into a publicly traded corrective eyewear Goliath that he eventually sold, in 2012, for $900 million. That was shortly after he and his wife, who’d also grown up in Texas, decided their next chapter would be based in Austin.
Standing atop the viewing platform on a clear fall day, pointing out various landmarks (there’s Michael Dell’s hilltop manse, video-game maker Richard Garriott’s lakefront ranch, National Instruments cofounder Jeff Kodosky’s medieval Tuscan village), Coon gestured toward a cluster of mirrored office buildings just north of the bridge: he’d been visiting a friend who worked in the top floor of one of them back in 2011 when the subject of Camelback’s status came up for the first time. “Most people assumed the land was part of a nature preserve,” Coon remembered, “but he had figured out it was privately owned”—by whom, though, was a mystery.
That was the beginning of Coon’s obsession with Camelback (so named for the shape of the hill). He envisioned building his dream home there, but he knew that wouldn’t make financial sense without developing more of the land. He started calling a lawyer who was associated with the property, “and he wouldn’t even give a hint who the owner was,” Coon said. “I would call him and send him a letter every year—all cash, no contingency—no response.” The owner turned out to be Exxon, which had bought the land in 1992 as a potential headquarters site but through various twists of fate had never acted on the idea. The company finally relented in 2017 and sold to Coon—and developing the land has been his full-time job ever since, his first, and likely his last, project in the field of real estate development.
The toughest part of the job? Selling folks on his vision. Coon is far from the first person to reimagine a swath of the rugged west Austin hills as a playground for the rich—that would be practically every landowner in the area. But this particular piece of property is a special case.
For one thing, some 4,000 people per week—more than 200,000 per year—park at the edge of the bridge and hike to the top of the bluffs to take in the view. It’s one of the most photographed spots in Austin, the kind of place where families bring the in-laws, couples get engaged, and stoned teens go to stare at the horizon. Never mind that it’s not technically a park; the Pennybacker Bridge Overlook is an Austin institution, and the long waterfront stretch of Coon’s triangular property runs right up to the edge of it. Second, millions of motorists cross the bridge each year (about 50,000 cars per day) and marvel at the dramatic cliffs.
Coon’s biggest complication has revolved around sight lines. When your neighbors, who paid many millions of dollars for spectacular views, know how to pull the levers of power, being the guy who plops a big building in front of them does not make you popular. It would be like erecting a twenty-foot-high tent at the fifty-yard line and blocking the fanciest season-ticket holders from seeing their football team. The solution, years in the making, required countless meetings with neighbors and officials to address concerns and get permissions.
The result could easily qualify as a Bond villain’s lair, somehow both discreet and opulent. A broad, four-story building will hug the contours of the ridge, with glass walls offering unobstructed views from the floor-through condominiums within. A dozen detached “villas” will cascade down the hillside, set apart just so for optimal privacy and sight lines. And the funicular—which will cost $15 million to build—will unite the property, all the way down to the marina, which will have private lounges above the boat slips. In all, there will be 179 homes, ranging from 1,900 to 7,000 square feet, with prices starting at around $4 million for the smallest, which is being billed as a pied-à-terre.
The neighbors’ views? Preserved by a maximum building height of 45 feet from the top of the hill. And the public access, Coon is quick to argue, will be enhanced, not obstructed. Illegal parking will be replaced with 25 city-approved spots, and the first 1,400-plus-foot stretch of the cliff from the highway will become a city park, with an official trail enhancing accessibility. Overall, 90 of the 145 acres will be protected as green space. As for the motoring public’s view: “The goal is when you drive across the bridge, this just looks like an extension of the hillside,” Coon said. “Imagine if we just built a thirty-story tower. It actually would have meant more green space. Environmental staff would have approved it in five minutes—144 acres of green space with a one-acre footprint—but everyone else would have hated it.”
With “everyone” Coon includes himself; he, of course, still plans to one day make this place home. Construction won’t finish for at least another four years (“if everything goes amazing,” he said), so move-in day will occur a good fourteen or fifteen years from the day he spotted the land.
Will it have been worth it? “I tend to make long-term commitments,” he said before pointing out that he was at 1-800 Contacts for more than twenty years. He talked about having learned that “the process of creating delightful customer experiences isn’t always delightful,” and about how his goal here is to be the ultimate customer. He brought up the fact that 62 buyers have already reserved homes on the site and discussed the value of having a great neighborhood. Finally he turned back to the question. “Ask me when it’s finished,” he said. There’s no telling what else will be on the Austin horizon by then.
The Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin will include an infinity pool ...
Plans now call for 179 residences, spa, athletic club & more — plus public overlook
By Michelle Pitcher
Three years ago, 1-800-Contacts founder and real estate developer Jonathan Coon made waves when he proposed a multimillion-dollar lakefront development that could've included houses, a restaurant and office space.
On Nov. 9, Coon and his development team released more details about the project, which will look considerably different than originally planned.
The project is now The Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin, a partnership between Four Seasons Hotel and Resorts and Austin Capital Partners, along with Hines Interests LP, which will lead the development team and manage construction. This will be the first standalone residential property in Texas for Four Seasons Hotels Ltd. The hospitality company also has standalone residences in London, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Executive architects for the project are Handel Architects LLP and Page Southerland Page Inc. Arup Group Ltd. is the project engineer, and the Eric Moreland Group will oversee sales and marketing.
The 145-acre community will consist of 179 residences. They’ll range in size from 1,900-square-foot “pied-à-terre” units to 7,000-square-foot units and penthouses. The designs reflect the exclusivity and beauty of the unique location, with floor plans that emphasize multi-directional views.
“Every residence here was designed around two things: privacy and views,” Coon said.
The community will be located at Bridgepoint Parkway and Loop 360, just west of Pennybacker Bridge.
The community will be entirely managed by the Four Seasons through a homeowner’s association, with ample luxury amenities. There will be an indoor garden, a 60,000-square-foot athletic center, a spa, a clubhouse and a theater. There will also be a two-story restaurant exclusively for residents and their guests.
Paul White, senior vice president of residential development for the Four Seasons, said the community will have 24-hour security and fully staffed amenities.
He said the project is a good fit for the Four Seasons’ luxury residential brand because it has “the best location, the best architecture, the best design, with the best amenities and lake access.”
The homes will start at $4 million.
Developers are also turning half of the property’s waterfront, nearly 1,500 feet of cliffside, into a public overlook. This particular aspect of the plan was in part inspired by the popularity of the nearby Pennybacker Bridge overlook right off 360. It attracts about 4,000 weekly visitors, many of whom park illegally and create unsafe conditions along the highway.
The Four Seasons developers are including free public parking in their overlook plan, which could help alleviate some of the traffic at the other spot.
Developers have also reserved 90 acres as protected parkland and will limit building heights to protect views.
According to Coon, developers plan to break ground in early 2023, with an anticipated delivery date of late 2025. That would complete the transformation for a remarkable piece of property, which ExxonMobil had at one point considered for an office site. Coon bought the land in 2017 from Eduardo “Eddie” Margain.
The new project details are a departure from the land's full entitlements. According to Coon, developers opted not to build certain aspects they were entitled to, including an 80-room hotel. Developers also had the option to build a commercial unit right on the cliff’s edge, but chose to keep it as green space.
Coon said developers chose to prioritize the residential experience, rather than squeezing all the use they could out of the land. He said he and his wife plan to live in the community.
“Our goal is really to maximize the customer experience, probably because we plan on being customers,” he said.
A funicular will make it easier to traverse the cliffs separating the residential area from the lake
By Shonda Novak
A landmark hilltop on Lake Austin — one of the last undeveloped tracts overlooking the lake — will be developed with a standalone condo project to be operated by Four Seasons Hotel and Resorts.
The project — called the Four Seasons Private Residences Lake Austin — calls for 179 high-end residences on the prime property at Shepherd Mountain.
The development is a venture between Austin entrepreneur Jonathan Coon, who owns the property, Four Seasons Hotel and Resorts, and Hines, a Houston-based real estate investment firm.
The project is a departure from earlier plans for the site, which at one point called for an elevator rising 180 feet from the lake, a restaurant, homes, condos and potentially office or hotel space.
The Lake Austin project would be the latest stand-alone Four Seasons Private Residences location, and the first in Texas. Other sites are in London, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The project is being called stand-alone because it won't be accompanied by a Four Seasons Hotel, as is the case with the Four Seasons Residences in downtown Austin.
The developers did not disclose an estimated cost for the project or details about its financing. They are targeting a groundbreaking in early 2023 and said they expect the project to be completed in late 2025.
Known as the Camelback tract, the 145-acre site where the condo project is to be built is off Bridge Point Parkway and Loop 360, just west of the Pennybacker Bridge.
Coon, CEO of Austin Capital Partners, said 90 of the 145 acres will be preserved as green space or public parkland.
Coon said he is donating half of the property's waterfront acreage to the city for a publicly accessible scenic overlook. There also will be 16 acres of public open space on the easternmost section of the property, closest to the Pennybacker Bridge, where Coon said he plans to add a trail for walking, biking and jogging.
The residential units would be in 18 buildings in all, each four stories in height. Prices for the units, which are being marketed by Austin-based Moreland Properties, are expected to start at $4 million. The condos would range from 1,900 square feet to 7,000 square feet, with parking under each residence. Four Seasons will manage the property’s services.
Plans also call for two restaurants, pools and a spa and fitness facility, all of which would be limited to use only by residents. About 30 boat slips are planned, Coon said, also all for the homeowners with the exception of one each for police and fire department use.
A funicular, or inclined cable railway, with two cabins is planned to give residents a two-minute ride down the steeply sloped hillside to the boat docks below. A four-story office building with 160,000 square feet of space also is planned on the property, as are two restaurants.
Charles Heimsath, an Austin real estate consultant, was not involved with the Four Seasons Lake Austin project but is familiar with the property.
"It is, without question, one of the most spectacular locations for residential development outside of downtown Austin," Heimsath said. "The Four Seasons brand is among the most coveted and should provide enhanced value to the residential units."
The Four Seasons condo project marks the newest iteration of a development Coon first planned several years ago.
Central to the new vision for the project, Coon said, is "responsible environmental stewardship to preserve and protect this iconic location."
"Our plan — supported by our neighbors and approved by the city — includes safe and accessible parking for the overlook and cliff. In addition to donating half of our lakefront property to the city, we will continue to invest in the responsible development of the green space — creating the first new park on Lake Austin in decades," Coon said.
Coon's earlier plans called for an elevator rising 180 feet from the lake to an upscale 200-seat hilltop restaurant, along with a 24-slip marina, homes and condos and potentially office space or a hotel.
Now, under the zoning approved in 2018 for Coon's property, and which about a dozen nearby neighborhood groups endorsed, "the plan protects the cliff ... from ever being developed and officially opens the overlook to the public," Coon said.
Coon said he intends to "provide a legal and safe way for people to visit the overlook on the cliff" and take in views of the lake and the city skyline.
Coon said he also is working with the Texas Department of Transportation on road and parking improvements to the area.
Coon said hikers and others are now parking — illegally and unsafely — along Loop 360 to access the hilltop on his property that he said sees some 250,000 visitors a year. He said he plans to leave that land open to the public, and to address the parking situation.
"We are committed to providing 25 parking spaces accessible from (nearby) Bridge Point Parkway, but we are also working with (the Texas Department of Transportation) to increase this to 75 parking spaces," he said.
Alison Alter, the Austin City Council member whose district includes the planned Four Seasons project, said it "will be an environmentally sustainable development that contributes a significant amount of green space, parkland and affordable housing fees for our city."
"This project is a positive example of how developers should be striving for neighborhood engagement," Alter said.
Some neighbors who support the project said they see it as a "win-win" compared with the denser development that could have been built under previous entitlements.
"It was so egregious. This is a major improvement," said Marisa Barreda Lipscher, president of the Shepherd Mountain Neighborhood Association. "So far, it's been relatively well-received by the neighbors."
Linda Bailey, president of the Lake Austin Collective, represents several thousand homes that surround the Camelback property. Bailey said the group has reviewed the overall concept of the project and is supportive.
"We hope this project serves as a model for other developers of how to cooperate with neighbors and do environmentally responsible development. We wish all developers approached their projects and neighbors like Jonathan Coon has with this project," Bailey said.
David Armbrust, an Austin real estate attorney, represented Exxon Mobil when it owned the property, keeping the ownership under wraps for 25 years.
Armbrust said the development that is planned is well-suited for a property that was much sought-after, including by the current owner, who "tried to buy it several times but never gave up."
"Looks like an amazing project on an amazing site," Armbrust said of the proposed Four Seasons project.
Armbrust called the tract "one of the most spectacular properties in Central Texas and maybe Texas as a whole."
Coon, the property owner, is best-known as one of the founders of 1-800-Contacts, a company that sells replacement contact lenses. The company sold for $900 million in 2012, and was acquired by KKR in 2020 for $3.1 billion.
In 2018, Coon told the American-Statesman that he and his wife, Kirsten, who have three grown children, planned to build a home on their Lake Austin land.
During a tour of the property Monday, Coon said the couple still plans to build a home on one of the 12 single-family home lots that also are planned on the site.
Because they plan to live on the property, Coon said, they have a vested interest in seeing that the project achieves his goal of making it "the nicest place to live."
“We’re Austinites, and we love Austin,” Coon said in an earlier interview. “We think there’s an opportunity to do something great for Austin that everybody’s excited about.”
Jonathan Coon, CEO, Austin Capital Partners, owns the 145 acre waterfront acres ...
By Lynette Haaland
Members of Lake Austin Collective toured The Reserve at Lake Austin construction site recently at 6401 RM 2222 near City Park Road.
"(It was) my group that helped get the retirement center zoned," said Linda Bailey, president of the Lake Austin Collective.
The group advocates for 12+ neighborhoods along the 6-mile City Park Road, RM 2222 and Capital of Texas Highway 360, close to the iconic Pennybacker Bridge.
Lake Austin Collective is a Texas 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization that was founded 20 years ago to engage and educate people about safe, responsible and sustainable growth within Lake Austin and its surrounding neighborhoods.
The Reserve at Lake Austin's 45-acre site was formerly known as Champion Tract 3. Residents and local citizen groups were opposed to the prior denser apartment complex plans for the site.
"We bought the land at the end of 2018," said Jon Erickson, tract co-owner and strategic investment partner at HPI Real Estate Services & Investments. He's also a Steiner Ranch resident. "We were able to get this site fortuitously through Jonathan Coon."
Last fall the developers donated 34 acres for the Carol Lee Preserve. Lee lived in the nearby neighborhood and was an advocate for her community before passing away from cancer in 2018.
The Reserve at Lake Austin will sit on the remaining 11 acres and is expected to be finished by February. The 108,000-square-foot community will feature 120 apartments: 26 memory care and 94 assisted living.
"Building is well done," Bailey said after touring on June 14.
"Our goal and intent is to have the nicest senior living community in Austin by far," Erickson said.
LAC members recently take a tour of the construction of The Reserve at Lake Austin.
By Lynette Haaland
Construction is now in full swing at The Reserve at Lake Austin after a slight delay from COVID. The senior living community at 6401 RM 2222 is down Tumbleweed Hill at City Park Road.
“We will open in February of 2022,” said Jon Erickson, tract co-owner and strategic investment partner at HPI Real Estate Services & Investments. He’s also a Steiner Ranch resident. The 108,000-square-foot community will feature 120 apartments: 26 memory care and 94 assisted living. “Our goal and intent is to have the nicest senior living community in Austin by far,” Erickson said. The property is adjacent to Lake Austin, close to the Pennybacker Bridge, near Austin Country Club, and has views of downtown Austin and the surrounding greenscape.
The project is slightly behind schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “
We are three months behind from where we originally thought but it’s been the best three months,” Erickson said. “We paused (last year) and brought in all of our consultants and had a unique opportunity to take into account COVID.”
The team was able to thoughtfully consider new ways to make the project better. “If this (a pandemic) does ever have to happen again, we’re ready,” he added.
They reworked some of their plans for HVAC to include the highest quality air cleanliness. “It’s top-of-the-line, better than competitors as far as air quality goes,” he said.
For sanitization, they incorporated motion controlled light switches, and are making sure they are including anything that they can to implement technology. This type of latest technology is not found yet in most senior housing.
“(One example is) interactive video from residents' rooms if they had to be quarantined,” Erickson said. The capability would be there for telemed doctor visits from room to room.
Interactive video could incorporate other activities such as community cooking or exercise classes, or visiting.
Apartment pricing is expected to be comparable to the Belmont Village in West Lake Hills, Erickson said.
The Reserve is part of Solera Senior Living’s nationwide portfolio. According to its website, Solera develops, owns and operates communities “that will inspire a better quality of life for seniors … with personalized service, engaging programs, and best-in-class amenities.”
The 45-acre site was formerly known as Champion Tract 3. Residents and local citizen groups were opposed to the prior denser apartment complex plans for the site, according to reporting by Four Points News.
“We bought the land at the end of 2018,” he said. “We were able to get this site fortuitously through Jonathan Coon.”
Last fall the developers donated 34 acres for the Carol Lee Preserve, which will be dedicated at a later date. Carol Lee, who lived in the nearby neighborhood land was an advocate for her community, passed away from cancer in 2018. The Reserve at Lake Austin will sit on the remaining 11 acres.
Construction started in February 2020, more than a year after the property purchase. Clearing the site was paused due to nesting season. The site foundation was poured in September, then the power and plumbing were added. Construction went vertical around the beginning of 2021.
The site is tucked into the Texas Hill Country. The developers cleared as few trees as possible so the property could be more integrated into nature.
“The back porch will feel like a tree house, right at the tips of all of the trees with these great views,” Erickson said. “Feels more like the Four Seasons, and less like a nursing home.”
The Reserve at Lake Austin is under construction at RM 2222/City Park Road.
By Jo Clifton
Once again, the city of Austin finds itself on the losing end of a legal battle over public information. Last week, the 14th Court of Appeals sided with the Lake Austin Collective, which sued the city for failing to give adequate notice of an agenda item changing the terms of development regulations for the Champion tract in Northwest Austin.
On Nov. 10, 2016, Council approved an agenda item amending a settlement agreement with the Champions for property at 6409 City Park Road, known as the Champion tract. The agenda item failed to mention that the ordinance included a waiver of certain requirements of the Hill Country Roadway Ordinance, as well as parts of the Lake Austin Watershed regulations.
Although the caption of the ordinance approved by Council clearly noted those waivers, there was no way for the public to learn about the proposed waivers prior to the Council meeting. One year later, Travis County District Judge Scott Jenkins ruled that the city had violated the Open Meetings Act by failing to note the proposed ordinance changes on its agenda. At the time, a city spokesperson told the Austin Monitor, “While we are disappointed in the ruling, we appreciate the court’s thoughtful consideration of this matter. We are committed to following the Open Meetings Act. In light of the judge’s decision, we will assess our options, and will advise Council accordingly.”
It turned out that the city chose the option of appealing.
Bill Aleshire, an attorney who frequently represents clients who believe the city is not living up to its open meetings obligations, represents the Lake Austin Collective. He told the Monitor on Sunday, “Of all the cities in Texas, I would not have thought our city of Austin would have such a problem with transparency, but they do.”
Aleshire also represented Brian Rodgers, who successfully sued the city over its failure to provide adequate notice when Council was considering zoning regulations for Pilot Knob.
The Lake Austin Collective ended up in a better spot than it originally anticipated when entrepreneur Jonathan Coon decided to buy the Champion property to combine it with another piece of land.
By Leslee Bassman
A high profile piece of real estate in the Four Points area — Champion Tract 3 off RM 2222 at City Park Road — has recently sold and is slated to become a senior living complex.
Two months after the site was approved for development by the Austin City Council, HPI purchased the Champion 3 tract in late December. The site is a 15-acre section of the 144-acre Camelback planned unit development off a to-be-constructed extension of Bridgepoint Parkway, said Jon Erickson, strategic investments partner at HPI, a commercial real estate company.
“We closed on the (Champion 3) land and we’re working on the design of it now to build a senior living community there,” said Erickson, a resident of Steiner Ranch. “We haven’t finalized (the design) yet… That’s what we’re working towards right now, to make sure we have the right mix.”
This project is in the works at the same time as the nearby Camelback PUD development which will include homes, office space, parkland, trails and a restaurant along Lake Austin. Additionally, there are other new projects near RM 2222, City Park Road and Loop 360 that will impact Four Points and the area traffic especially during construction: a storage unit project, a hotel and planned Texas Department of Transportation roadway improvements to RM 2222.
The HPI group would like to get started on their senior living project before the end of the year and, if not, in the first quarter of 2020, with a projected opening in the second half of 2021, Erickson said.
The Solera Reserve at Lake Austin will include a mix of assisted living and memory-care services, he said. The site is zoned for a facility of up to 130,000-square-feet, although the exact floor plan and community square footage has not been finalized, Erickson said. The project’s amenity package has yet to be completed but he said it will include the typical benefits for residents of a high-end, senior living community such as a salon, gym or exercise/rehabilitation room, a community room and bistro.
“As a Steiner Ranch resident and with our company offices on (Loop) 360, we are focused on creating a community that lovingly serves our seniors with a hospitality mindset,” Erickson said.
HPI representatives held a meeting with community members on Thursday, Jan. 16 to discuss the project that has taken years to get through the city of Austin’s permit process. Residents and local citizen groups were opposed to the prior denser apartment complex plans for the site. Austin City Council passed its final approval on the project Nov. 1 with it previous owner, Jonathan Coon.
“We’re just looking forward to providing a quality community for the community,” Erickson said. “As we get our plans more finalized, we look forward to providing more detailed information.”
Linda Bailey, president of the Lake Austin Collective, a volunteer group that aims to protect the neighborhoods around City Park Road and Lake Austin, said she was not surprised at the sale or that the stated use of the tract would remain a senior living center.
“We knew early on, I mean months ago, that it would be sold,” she said, adding that she was unaware the buyer would be HPI. “It’s not like anybody did anything behind our back. I heard a couple of people saying that and that is flat wrong.”
She said area residents “are delighted to have a senior living center” on the tract that will have much less traffic than its originally-planned apartment complex as well as a primary driveway on RM 2222 instead of City Park Road.
“We perceive this (senior living project) as a real benefit to the community,” Bailey said. “It’s a use that met all of our requirements.”
She said the original tract owner, Coon, is a member of the new Champion 3 ownership group along with Adam Kaplan and HPI. Coon retains a 25 percent stake in the tract. According to Bailey, Coon said he wanted a senior living center on the tract to “limit the traffic for us.”
However, with the new facility construction coming, traffic in the area may, at least temporarily, become even more of an issue that it already is.
Bailey said she has asked for a construction plan of the senior living project and “should see that very soon.”
“We do not want the traffic on City Park Road,” she said. “We prefer it on (RM) 2222. And, where they can, we will ask them to do that.”
Bailey said the reason for the traffic request is because an approved storage unit project will be under construction in the vicinity in addition to the nearby Camelback mixed-use project; a hotel; and planned Texas Department of Transportation roadway improvements to RM 2222. The hotel, to be developed by Avenue East on the southeast corner of RM 2222 and Loop 360, is currently under review by city of Austin staffers, she said.
“We need to coordinate all of this stuff,” Bailey said of the expected construction traffic.
River Place HOA
Scott Crosby, president of the River Place Homeowners Association, cautions residents to be mindful of changes to their commute as a result of anticipated construction.
“It looks like City Park Road is going to be pretty screwed up between Camelback, Champion Tract 3 retirement community and the storage facility across the street,” Crosby said. “And that’s probably next fall, in the September time frame.”
This rendering depicts a proposed site plan for the Solera Reserve senior living at Lake Austin.
By Daniel Salazar
Development plans for a picturesque lakefront tract in West Austin cleared Austin City Council this week.
Council approved the rezoning of a 144.8-acre Lake Austin tract located near the Pennybacker Bridge as a planned unit development. Plans for what’s known as the Camelback PUD call for offices, homes, a restaurant, parkland and open space.
The ordinance was approved on second and third readings Thursday night, meaning the planned unit development rezoning got final Council approval. It was approved on first reading on Oct. 18.
Jonathan Coon, who founded 1-800-Contacts, is developing Camelback after purchasing the property in 2017. It’s the entrepreneur’s first try at real estate and land development.
“We appreciate the trust the City Council has placed in us to be good stewards of this iconic location," Coon said in a written statement to Austin Business Journal. "We look forward to sharing this location with everyone in Austin.”
Austin Business Journal in August profiled Coon’s efforts to acquire and transform the property, an intriguing story involving former ExxonMobil Corp. CEO and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
The PUD rezoning would allow up to 325,000 square feet of commercial space, a clubhouse, homes and a boat dock, according to city documents.
The property's new zoning allows 64 residential units, but developers could build up to 200 homes if they reduce the amount of commercial space. However, commercial space can't be increased over the 325,000 square feet cap in exchange for fewer residential units.
Coon's plans also include turning the area near the 360 Overlook — a cliff bluff just west of the Pennybacker Bridge, overlooking the lake — into an official 26-acre city park.
"That's why we're doing this," said Jeff Howard, a McLean & Howard attorney representing the applicant. "With this proposal, we protect... that iconic view with dedicated parkland."
"That park will be there for generations and generations of Austinites, and it's a gift to the city of Austin," he told Council. "That's the type of precedent you want to set."
Kimley-Horn & Associates Inc., Thrower Design, HDR Inc., Pharis Design and Arup were also part of the development team.
A potential tram to ferry people from a 576-foot-long dock on the water up to the property drew concerns from nearby neighbors, according to the Austin American-Statesman.
The Council also finalized the sale of the "Champion tract" — along City Park Drive and RM 2222 — for a senior living center there instead of a larger apartment complex that was previously planned, the Statesman reports.
Council Member Ann Kitchen voted against Camelback's planned unit development zoning, arguing for construction limits on the higher slopes of the property.
"I remain disturbed about the environmental impact," Kitchen said. "We were not able to get what I consider to be a superior PUD for environmental purposes."
With Council Member Leslie Pool off the dais at the end of the meeting, the final Camelback vote was 9-1-1.
A project representative said there isn't a firm timeline yet for submitting a site plan or breaking ground on the Camelback project.
Views of Lake Austin from the Camelback PUD.
By Jessi Devenyns
After nearly four and a half hours of testimony and discussion, and two votes due to some confusion over the conditions attached to a motion, the Environmental Commission endorsed the environmental superiority of the Camelback PUD, the controversial planned unit development on a 145-acre plot of land that fronts Lake Austin just west of Loop 360.
After a narrow 5-4 vote that would leave the project without a recommendation or the associated environmental conditions, the commissioners agreed to reconsider the vote. On the second try, the project passed with a 7-2 margin to recommend its approval.
The commissioners generally agreed on the superiority of the proposed PUD in comparison to the 1987 PUD when they looked at the plan for clustered development and the donation of 26.11 acres of parkland to the city. A sticky situation arose, however, when it came to the method with which people would access the lakeside clubhouse and dock.
According to Chair Linda Guerrero, many of the plans are still “half baked” with no renderings or engineering studies to provide data.
Part of the reason for this rushed approval is the compressed timeline necessitated by the purchase of nearby Champion tract 3, whose current development proposal has generated traffic concerns among the neighborhood. Jonathan Coon, the Camelback developer, has said he is interested in buying the Champion parcel from the current owners and pursuing a less intense development at the behest of the neighbors. “We only agreed to purchase Champion tract 3 because of so much community interest,” Coon told the Austin Monitor.
The option period for this tract extends until Nov. 2, and the final Council hearing on the Camelback project is scheduled for Nov. 1. Although technically separate, the two projects are not mutually exclusive. Coon explained to the Monitor that he is happy to develop the Champion tract with less dense development, but the result will be a loss in value. He agreed to pursue this approach on the condition that the Camelback project is approved because “we will recover that value over at Camelback.”
Indeed, this entire project is a “horse trade,” according to city Environmental Officer Chris Herrington. However, Herrington noted that Coon has made significant concessions on behalf of the environment. “I would be comfortable recommending overall superiority,” he said.
Two major changes were the removal of an office park in favor of more green space and the extension of the dock by 40 feet (the dock will still be 30 feet long) in order to accommodate the rehabilitation of the shoreline wetland.
The dock, which has generated a lot of contention, is within code specifications. It is 20 percent of the shoreline that includes the portion of the tract that Coon is donating as parkland. Although several commissioners thought that would set a precedent, Herrington argued that it was justified by the fact that the city would be adding its first park along Lake Austin in 35 years, and it will be maintained by Coon.
The fee in lieu for this park if not donated would only be $63,000, according to Coon.
Similarly, the proposed tram to descend the cliff face to reach the private clubhouse and dock also caused a stir. Although an hour’s worth of public input was fairly divided between those for and those against the project, much of the loudest opposition was directed at the proposed tram. Tom Burns, who spoke on behalf of the Bunny Run neighborhood that Bill Nalle has been representing over the past few months, told the Monitor that despite the neighborhood’s unwavering opposition to the idea of the extensive dock and the tramway that is required to reach it, “We are in favor of (the project). We know and understand the wholesale economics of it.”
Although many understood the economic reasons behind the dock and the associated tramway, there was still fear associated with the safety of cliffside mechanized access.
Commissioner Pam Thompson expressed her inability to “justify putting people below where boulders the size of SUVs have been seen to fall. … That’s quite concerning,” she said.
City staff recommended constructing an elevator instead of using a tram, which are known to be destructive to vegetation and rimrock. Even the idea of constructing stairs caused controversy. In light of the choices presented, Herrington suggested that regardless of if an elevator or tram is chosen, “I think we could apply conditions to either one.”
Jeff Howard, the attorney for the developer, assured the commissioners that already the project team has decided that “whatever mechanical access we have, it (will not be) bolted into the cliff face.”
In the end, the commission voted to recommend the superiority of the plan over the current 1987 PUD, but only with a host of attached conditions. Commissioners Pam Thompson and Peggy Maceo voted against the recommendation.
To offer some reassurance, Commissioner Hank Smith reminded those in the room, “I think this is going to continue to change up until 10 minutes before City Council approves the item.”
The Camelback PUD project will go before the Zoning and Platting Commission on Oct. 2.
Property boundaries of the Camelback PUD on Lake Austin near the Pennybacker Bridge
Jonathan Coon could 'change the paradigm' for how developers work with neighborhoods
By Marissa Luck
The morning I met the man who transformed the contact lens industry, he was wearing rimless glasses. He had just swooped in on a red-eye flight from Hawaii, where he was supposed to be on vacation with his family.
Instead, Jonathan Coon was in a black chauffeured SUV with me at an unmarked location overlooking a rugged bluff on Lake Austin. Coon — who wore a light blue polo shirt and jeans — explained this isn’t his normal vehicle. But he needed the chauffeur, Pepe, and his skills for driving over rugged terrain, to give several tours that day of the 144-acre wooded property he owns on Shepherd Mountain west of Capital of Texas Highway near the iconic Pennybacker Bridge.
Known as the Camelback property, this is where Coon wants to build a multimillion-dollar mixed-use development with what could be some of the most idyllic views of Austin.
The story of how Coon got a hold of the Northwest Austin property, and of his long battle to develop it, is one of an entrepreneur-accidentally-turned-real-estatedeveloper. It’s one of a self-described “functioning introvert” spending his days meeting with strangers trying to persuade them of his plans. And it’s a reminder for real estate executives across the region that even if you win over most of your neighbors, it's nearly impossible to win them all.
“I’ve never heard a developer speak like him before ... and I think it’s because he’s not a developer. He’s an entrepreneur,” said Marisa Barreda Lipscher, president of the Shepherd Mountain Neighborhood Association. “And entrepreneurs, they know how to think creatively.”
After the SUV ride, we clambered into a man lift that raised us several feet above the tree line. Coon wants to put condominiums in this spot, wrapped by an expanse of lush green trees peppered with rooftops. In the distance the Pennybacker Bridge looks small where it intersects with Lake Austin. Farther out, downtown skyscrapers are visible above the hills.
Coon, 48, and his wife, Kristen, have long coveted Camelback since moving to Austin in 2009. The Dallas natives wanted to build a house there after their three adult moved out. But they couldn’t afford to live there without some kind of commercial development, Jonathan Coon said. So Coon, who founded 1-800- Contacts in his dorm room in 1992 and built it into a multimillion-dollar business that went public, turned the Camelback property into his new passion project.
Now if Coon’s request for an amendment planned unit development is approved by Austin City Council, his development would preserve much of the open space near the 360 Overlook into a publicly accessible park with 3,000 feet of shoreline. There could also be 25 single-family homes, 40 condos, a 19,400-square-foot clifftop restaurant, a private clubhouse and 300,000 square feet of office space.
WHAT COON WANTS TO BUILD:
• 325,000 square feet of commercial space: This could include 300,000 square feet of office space. The PUD proposal includes the potential for an 80-room hotel, but Coon said he’s leaning toward dropping that option. This would be built at least 2,000 feet from the Pennybacker Bridge.
• 19,400-square-foot clifftop eatery with 200-seat upscale restaurant and casual bar and grill, and potentially a boutique office.
• 40 condominiums and 25 single-family homes. Part or all of the 325,000 square foot commercial space could be converted into up to 200 residential units.
• No marina, but there would be boat docks 2,500 feet away from Pennybacker Bridge
• 180-foot elevator or tram ascending from the lake to the restaurants
• 27 acres of parkland, including a cliffside park and a preserve
• Minimum of 50 percent of land dedicated to open space
How the Coons bought the property
Starting around 2010, Jonathan Coon would regularly place offers on the land through the listing agent, attorney David Armbrust. Each offer was met with silence even after offering to donate to a charity of the owner’s choice if only he could have 30 minutes of his or her time.
Coon figured the property was owned by some real estate trust or extremely wealthy family, or belonged to a corporation that didn't need the money.
It turned out to be the latter. ExxonMobil Corp. quietly held the site for two decades, most recently under a business called Camelback Corp., which changed its name to 360 Camelback LLC, according to the Austin American Statesman. Eventually ExxonMobil staffers told Coon he could meet with then-CEO Rex Tillerson if he managed to get himself to an event in Utah, where Tillerson was scheduled to speak in fall 2013.
So he went to Utah. He had three minutes of Tillerson's time.
“When I got my three minutes with Rex I said, ‘Look, you're the CEO of one of the biggest companies in the world, I wouldn’t expect you to know about this little property in Austin, Texas.’ His response was 'Oh no, I know all about it,’” Coon recalled. At one time, ExxonMobil considered building an office there, Coon said.
Tillerson connected Coon with one of Exxon’s real estate brokers. The oil company later hired Jones Lang Lasalle Inc. to market the property. Coon said he came in second during the bidding to real estate investor Eduardo “Eddie” Margain, a friend he hadn’t known was also seeking the site. Margain and Austin's Riverside Resources bought the site in 2014 under a partnership called Luna Heights LP.
Yet Coon continued pursuing the property. Three years later, in March 2017, Margain sold the land to Coon under the business name Loop 360 Land LP. Margain remains a friend and business partner with Coon, and still has a 10 percent ownership in the property.
Drones, deals and down-to-the-wire meetings
One of the first things Coon did, even before closing on the land, was to meet with a group of leaders from nine nearby neighborhood associations at a coffee shop. He outlined his vision for a property with more green space, a park and less development than a 1987 project initially planned for the site.
Coon asked the neighbors whether they would support it. The groups, part of the Lake Austin Collective, were embroiled in a protracted legal battle over a controversial development at the property known as Champion Tract. That’s the 45-acre site not far from Camelback where Houston-based Slate Real Estate Partners has proposed a 300-unit apartment complex.
“At the time we were happy to listen to him, but we were, to be frank, not in the right mindset,” recalled Barreda Lipscher of the Shepherd Mountain Neighborhood Association, who is also a member of the Lake Austin Collective. “Back then we were exhausted, we didn’t trust developers.”
At that meeting, one of the neighbors suggested he buy Champion Tract outright from Slate, to prevent the development there. Coon thought it would be too expensive initially. Meanwhile the Champion Tract controversy simmered. When it became clear to the Lake Austin Collective that their second attempt to block the project would fail for a second time at City Hall, Barreda Lipscher said the groups scrambled to meet with Coon again early this year.
By then, Coon had caught up on all the Champion Tract drama at City Hall, binge watching hours of online Council meetings like "a reality TV show," he said. Around that time a developer approached him about the possibility of building senior-living apartments on Camelback. Instead, Coon thought he could build a 120,000-squarefoot senior-living project at Champion Tract, about half the size of Slate’s proposal with 75 percent less traffic, the Statesman reported.
The Lake Austin Collective neighbors supported the senior-living proposal and agreed to support his efforts to modify the Camelback planned-unit development, too. By March, Coon purchased a $1 million, six-month option to purchase the Champion tract.
Careful dance with Camelback, Champion tracts
If Coon closes the deal to buy Champion property, he expects to recover some of the cost from the income of the senior-living center as well as by transferring development credits to the Camelback property. Essentially if the city approves, Coon would be able to build more commercial space on Camelback in exchange for building less on Champion. Even still, Coon expects he will lose at least $2 million if he buys Champion Tract.
"So the only reason why I would do that is, one, it would make our neighbors happy and, two, it would expedite this whole process with the city," Coon said. "There's a lot of people that didn't want that [300-unit apartment] project to be done, and this is a way for everyone to be happy. And it was a business solution to a legal problem."
Yet so far, the offer to buy Champion Tract hasn’t hastened anything. It’s been four months since Coon filed a request to modify a 1987 PUD to fit what he wants to build and meet zoning codes. New hurdles include the unique environmental features of the cliffs and heritage trees plus questions from city staff and pushback from some opponents who live across the river.
Although Coon has been “very willing to work with staff and address the staff comments,” there isn’t enough time to complete reviews of the environmental and traffic impacts before Coon’s six-month option to buy Champion Tract ends Sept. 1, said Wendy Rhoades, principal planner for the Planning and Zoning Department. After the staff review the proposal must pass through two commissions and City Council. So Coon said he will have to ask Slate for an extension for the option as he hammers out details with the city.
Barreda Lipscher said the neighborhood groups she works with will continue supporting Coon regardless.
“Jonathan comes in and he has gone through pains to meet with all the folks who will have to be looking at his Camelback property every day. He’s gone and met with every single one and he’s gone to their homes and taken pictures and used drones and videos to clarify things,” she said.
"This has been a game changer. I mean, if he's an example of how developers can work with neighbors, then I think it says a lot, that he can really change the paradigm," Barreda Lipscher added.
Over 18 months, Coon has met with hundreds of neighbors, often individually. And in a lot of cases, he seems to bend over backwards to try to get their support. That includes dedicating half his waterfront acreage to create a privately-owned, publicly-accessible park adjacent to the 360 Bridge Overlook area where people hike to the top of a hill next to Pennybacker Bridge. He has also offered to build a new 25-space parking area to get rid of the illegally parked cars by the overlook and pay $3 million to extend Bridge Point Parkway to try to alleviate some traffic concerns.
OTHER PUBLIC PERKS AND CONCESSIONS
• $3 million extension of Bridge Point Parkway to connect the road that cuts off abruptly at Coldwater Canyon Drive to the rest of Bridge Point Parkway that branches off of North Capital of Texas Highway
• Coon would pay $567,000 toward building additional turn lanes West Courtyard Drive, North Capital of Texas Highway and City Park Road onto 2222 to alleviate traffic.
• 25 public parking spaces and public restrooms to the state-owned 360 Bridge Park overlook (developer to pay $1.6 million for this)
• The 1987 original PUD plan had no protection for Heritage Trees. Coon’s plan commits to 75 percent of protection for Heritage Trees across the entire site.
• ADA-compliant trail added off Bridgepoint Parkway so that visitors in wheelchairs can experience the 360 bridge views
• "Dark sky" design guidelines and techniques to limit light pollution for commercial buildings
• Building heights limited to 45 feet to avoid obstructing views for neighbors
Coon also said he is ditching his plan for an 180-foot elevator on the side of the bluff in favor of a slower-moving tram that won’t protrude as much off the cliff, in response to neighbor concerns.
After neighbors across the river raised questions about boat safety, he produced eight hours of drone photography to show his docks wouldn’t impact where boats normally turn. So far, seven neighborhood associations representing 2,500 homes support Coon’s proposal, along with the plus the Austin Neighborhoods Council, which represents 100 neighborhoods.
Yet he hasn’t squashed all the opposition. Bill Nalle is a vocal opponent of Coon’s project. His family donated the 35 acres of land across the river from Camelback Property into a wildlife preserve. Nalle told Community Impact he’s worried how the proposed boat dock would impact safety of intoxicated boaters curving around the 90-degree curve in the river.
Lyra Bemis, president of the Bunny Run Neighborhood Association, also has concerns. Her organization worries about the noise and light pollution, whether the private park would have unrestricted public access, the visual impact of the elevator or tram and how the density and traffic could impact the scenic and environmentally-sensitive area, among other concerns.
“Up and down Lake Austin … people expect to see homes. They don’t expect to see businesses and commercial buildings,” said Bemis, whose nonprofit represents about 300 homes.
Yet Coon is not someone who gives up easily. During his days leading 1-800- Contacts, Coon spent 300 days over five years lobbying state and federal lawmakers to allow consumers to access their contact lens prescriptions. He visited 22 state capitals and lost votes in 19 of them before eventually convincing Congress to change federal law. He hands out his personal contact information and doesn’t hire a lobbyist.
"What I learned from that effort is we weren't the smartest guys in the room, we weren't the most educated," Coon said. "We were just the most persistent."
Entrepreneur Jonathan Coon
By Elizabeth Findell
Just when you thought it was over, get ready for another — potentially more peaceful — chapter in the tale of the northwestern Austin development site known as the Champion tract.
City Council members narrowly approved rezoning and waivers of environmental rules last week to allow apartments on the property, near RM 2222 and Loop 360. Now, a new deal will seek to start over and reduce the scope of the project approved.
If successful in getting city approval by Sept. 1, entrepreneur Jonathan Coon will buy the property from Houston-based developers Slate Real Estate Partners and, instead of apartments, build a smaller project, an elderly care home, there.
If Coon can’t get the project approved in time, Slate will move forward on its original proposal, keeping the $1 million Coon already paid for the option to buy, he said.
“Effectively, we have bet on the city of Austin’s ability to go fast,” Coon said, acknowledging that might make some people laugh. “But this is one where we should have unanimous support.”
BACKGROUND: Austin grants rezoning of Champion tract, again, to allow apartments
The 120,000 square feet of senior living space would be half the square footage of the apartments Slate had proposed and would create 75 percent less traffic, one of the main concerns driving neighborhood opposition to the Slate proposal. Most importantly from Coon’s perspective, it would tie into a development he already has planned on the Camelback parcel, virtually alongside the Champion tract, beside the Pennybacker Bridge and Colorado River.
Coon, an entrepreneur who founded 1-800-Contacts, plans to build his own home on the Camelback parcel, along with other houses, a marina, some office space alongside existing offices and a restaurant overlooking the lake. He will make half of the property into a park, so there will be no buildings within 2,000 feet of the bridge and the public can still use it for hiking.
The Lake Austin Collective — a group of neighbors who fought Slate’s project for years and got it sent it back to the council after a lawsuit under the Texas Open Meetings Act — supports Coon’s proposal. The group sent a letter to council members urging them to approve public utility district amendments for the Camelback project, and to incorporate the Champion plan into it.
Also in support is Council Member Alison Alter, whose District 10 includes both properties, but who was outvoted 6-5 in her opposition to the Slate project. Any project with less of an environmental impact would be preferable, she said.
ALSO READ: New owner ponders future of prized Lake Austin tract
Slate will make “significantly less” of a profit selling the property to Coon than developing it as planned, said Mark Stevenson, one of the partners. But the firm is more interested in taking a long view and winning friends in Austin as it negotiates on other potential projects.
“Mr. Coon has presented us an opportunity that is sufficient for us to look back and go ‘We don’t want to be the bad guys,’” Stevenson said. “We can go on doing other developments in Austin. We’d rather be considered for doing things broadly, rather than force something.”
He added that, while he disagreed with neighbors and considered the apartments good for the area, he understood the opposition and was impressed with Coon’s alternative proposal.
Coon wasn’t familiar with the Champion tract until a neighbor suggested he buy it from Slate. He watched nine hours of city meeting debates about it to get caught up. Now, a week after rumblings of lawsuits from either side, he said he hopes to bring a happy ending to the controversy.
“It has been a political football and the compromise shouldn’t be,” Coon said. “It has the support of the developer and our neighbors.”
Champion Tract 3 -- subject of a battle over a planned apartment complex for years.
By Philip Jankowski
It’s been 20 years, so what’s another two weeks?
That’s what the Austin City Council decided Thursday evening about the controversial plans to develop a swath of Northwest Austin known as the Champion tract.
The council once again delayed a vote on the tract, located near RM 2222 and Loop 360, after the city’s environmental officer provided new data late Wednesday to the council and concerned residents about the amount of development possible under a 1996 settlement and the proposed agreement. The information addressed concerns that Council Member Alison Alter brought up at Tuesday’s council work session.
After the vote, Alter, who has said she will vote against the agreement, addressed the dozens of residents who brought signs and spoke against developing the tract.
“I’m with you, and I’m with the environment,” said Alter, who represents District 10, where the property is located.
The council actually approved the agreement in November 2016, only to have a judge nix it last year after ruling that the city had not provided adequate public notice on what the item entailed. The agreement would allow a multifamily development of about 300 housing units.
In addressing the council, Mayor Steve Adler laid out a Cliff’s Notes version of what has happened over the past two decades with the Champion tract, which is officially listed at 6409 City Park Road.
The saga began with a state law in the 1990s that grandfathered the Champion tract into more developer-friendly zoning. That led to a 1996 lawsuit settlement with the city that set it for general office zoning.
The site had laid dormant, but in 2016, a developer came forward who wanted to turn the land into multifamily housing. That would require a change in use and would trigger the city’s current, much more restrictive zoning to take precedent on the tract.
However, the city entered into a less restrictive agreement when faced with a choice between the far more environmentally destructive 1996 agreement and the current code.
With the agreement in place, the new developer, Slate Real Estate, bought the land from the Champion sisters and began spending money to develop it. Slate partner Mark Stevenson said the company had already spent more than $2 million on the project when the court order undid its ability to build anything.
Because the city erred in how the Champion tract council item was posted in 2016, and the developer began spending money on the project believing it was in the clear, not approving the agreement now could open the city to litigation.
Adler said he would foresee a lawsuit, and Stevenson made sure to mention that “damages” caused by the agreement not moving forward would be “10 times or more” the $2 million that Slate has already spent.
“This is a hard case,” Adler said. “More than anything else in this case, I am sick that once again it is about what the state does to a community that tries to put its values in its ordinances and in its resolutions.”
Lake Austin Collective Directors organize nearly 100 protest letters handwritten by area neighbors.
The Saga Continues
By Margaret Nicklas
District Judge Scott Jenkins has voided a November 2016 vote at City Council that amended an existing legal agreement concerning Champions Tract 3 to ease land use restrictions and (along with a rezoning request Council approved simultaneously) pave the way for construction of a 325-unit apartment building on the land at 2222 and City Park Road. Jenkins' ruling came in response to a June lawsuit filed by Lake Austin Collective Inc., a neighborhood group opposed to the development. LAC's attorney Bill Aleshire argued successfully that the city had failed to inform the public that certain ordinances would be waived as part of the amendment. A city spokesperson said staff will assess options and "advise Council accordingly." The city could choose to appeal the decision or could repost the item for Council approval with more detailed information. J. Mark Stevenson, a partner with tract developer Slate Real Estate Partners, said he expects the item to be reposted with new language but no factual difference. "We have millions invested in this property," he wrote, "and the development plans and the project has received wide acceptance and encouragement as an outstanding example of needed multi-family development in an area of town that is underserved but sensitive to the landscape."
view from Champion Tract 3 at 2222 and City Park Road
Affects Development on Champion Tract
By Lynette Haaland
Last week, a district judge ruled that the city of Austin violated the Open Meetings Act in the suit led by the Lake Austin Collective Inc. against the city on June 5.
“Judge Scott Jenkins ruled (on Nov. 21) that the city of Austin violated the Open Meetings Act by not disclosing on its agenda (Nov. 10, 2016, agenda item
6) that council was granting environmental waivers to the developers of the Champion Tract,” said Bill Aleshire, attorney representing the Lake Austin Collective, a nonprofit group of residents who are affected by the proposed development on the tract owned by the Champion sisters on City Park Road near RM 2222.
“This is is a victory for (Lake Austin Collective) and for government transparency,” Aleshire said.
The Lake Austin Collective’s Aleshire argued that the Open Meetings Act
was violated because the action council took was to give Champion waivers of
the Lake Austin Watershed Ordinance and the Hill Country Roadway Ordinance without mentioning that on the meeting agenda that such waivers would be considered.
The agenda item said:
“6. Approve second and third reading of an ordinance amending Ordinance No. 960613-J and authorizing execution of the first amendment to a settlement agreement relating to the development of property located at 6409 City Park Road.”
“That arcane wording hid what was really going on,” Aleshire said.
Judge Jenkins’ order declares “void” the action the council took on that
item to grant the developer waivers to the Lake Austin Watershed Ordinance and the Hill Country Roadway Ordinance.
Members of the board of the Lake Austin Collective include Carol Lee, Linda Bailey and Susan Kimbrough. Marisa Lipscher, another plaintiff in the proposed suit, owns property next to the proposed Champion development and is the collective’s registered agent.
Basically what happened a year ago was that the council let the developer
move the zoning back 205 feet from the property line the day of the final vote, so a super-majority vote of council was not needed, despite there being a valid petition signed by adjacent landowners, Aleshire said.
“Champion would have lost if council had not let the developer pull that
trick,” Aleshire said. “And the council approved the environmental waivers
without them ever being reviewed by any city commission.”
Before filing suit Lake Austin Collective sent a draft the lawsuit to the city attorney in April and offered the city an opportunity to avoid the litigation
altogether if they would simply repost the agenda item correctly and take another vote.
The Collective gave them 45 days to comply with the settlement offer,
but they rejected that. So, 60 days later, suit was filed with the opening line in the lawsuit: “Chalk this case up to the category, ‘Some People Just Never Learn,’” Aleshire said.
A recent audit showed that the city is not keeping track of all of the waivers it gives developers, effectively making those “secret waivers” undiscoverable by a public information request, he said.
The mayor and city manager put out the meeting agendas, and council votes using that agenda. The mayor and council could insist on more honest
disclosure of topics on their agenda, Aleshire said.
He advises that on council meeting agendas, “don’t try to hide waivers
to developers by not clearly giving public notice.”
“Every agenda item they mishandled like this in the last four years (the statute of limitations for TOMA actions) is still vulnerable to being declared void,” Aleshire said.
For Aleshire, this is the second TOMA court ruling he has obtained against the city in the last year. Judge Yelenosky ruled that the city committed the same violation by granting waivers to the Pilot Knob development without disclosing
that on its meeting agenda. In that case, the plaintiff, Brian Rodgers, filed the lawsuit but immediately offered to drop it if the council would simply repost the item with honest disclosure of the $100 million fee waivers they were granting. The city refused to settle and lost the lawsuit, Aleshire said.
Lake Austin Collective case
Looking forward on the Lake Austin Collective case, the city attorney
and Aleshire are discussing getting a final judgment including, the attorney fees, submitted to the court. Once the final judgment is entered, the city has 30 days in which to file an appeal.
“We are asking Judge Jenkins to award about $8,400 in attorney fees and court costs against the city to the Lake Austin Collective,” Aleshire said.
“There is also an injunction in place to prohibit the city from issuing a site plan for Champion since the site plan would depend on the voided environmental waivers.”
Aleshire does not know if they are going to appeal.
If the development tries again to get the extra waivers of the Lake Austin
Watershed Ordinance and the Hill Country Roadway Ordinance, the item will have to be put back on the council agenda and correctly comply with TOMA, he said.
A district judge ruled the city of Austin violated the Open Meetings Act in a suit filed by LAC.
Temporary Injunction Puts Stop to Any Development Action
By Margaret Nicklas
A Travis County district court is once again serving as referee to a dispute between the city of Austin and its residents over the development of Champions Tract 3, at the corner of 2222 and City Park Road. On Friday, Sept. 22, Judge Gisela Triana granted a temporary injunction that stopped the city from taking proposed action related to the development, pending the outcome of a hearing set for Thursday, Oct 5. That hearing may settle a lawsuit filed in June concerning whether City Council's rezoning of the tract last November should be voided ("Looking Back on the Champions Tract Rezoning," June 30). Attorney Bill Aleshire petitioned for the injunction, arguing that his clients (Lake Austin Collective Inc.) would suffer imminent and irreparable harm were the city allowed to proceed before a judgment was reached on the group's previously filed lawsuit. According to that suit, the city violated the Texas Open Meetings Act when it failed to properly inform the public that waivers to the Hill Country Roadway Ordinance and the Lake Austin Watershed Ordinance would be approved as part of Council's vote. The tract had long been zoned for general office use but became sought as the site for a five-story, 325-unit apartment structure. As previously reported, the waivers were granted to accommodate developers, and get other concessions city staff believed to be vital.
Champions Tract 3 nestles into the corner of FM 2222 and City Park Road
Does This Development Belong in This Corner of the Hill Country?
By Margaret Nicklas
Champions Tract 3, a slim triangle of undeveloped land along FM 2222 in what still looks like relatively unspoiled Texas Hill Country, may soon have a new landmark. Rezoning and special exceptions that the Austin City Council granted last November would allow a five-story, 325-unit apartment complex to be built there, just before the turnoff onto City Park Road. But the proposed construction‚ which faced strenuous objection by area residents, now approaches another hurdle: A lawsuit filed June 5 alleges a lack of governmental transparency – or more specifically, a failure to comply with the Texas Open Meetings Act – and adds to locals' long-held list of grievances with the development, including unmanaged traffic, risks to water quality, environmental degradation, and a general disregard for relevant rules and processes.
Residents of Glenlake, Shepherd Mountain, Two Coves, and other neighborhoods around the 45-acre tract pleaded their case to Council and city commissioners over the previous calendar year – and in a run-off election in December (after losing at Council), took their dissatisfaction to the polls. Now, four of the strongest opponents of the project, as Lake Austin Collective Inc., have sued the city in a Travis County district court. Their suit, filed by local attorney Bill Aleshire, demands that Council's Champions vote be voided – and if reposted, that the city properly describe the environmental waivers and other exceptions this rezoning vote would cover.
The lawsuit, similar to one Aleshire filed (and won) last year over improperly posted Council Items concerning the Pilot Knob project, is the latest in a series of chess moves complicating efforts to develop the tract. Residents in these affluent neighborhoods say they know development there is inevitable. Some welcome the idea, saying the area needs more services and amenities close to their suburban homes. And they recognize that Austin's growth calls for more housing. But whether this development belongs here, in this particular corner of the Hill Country, has proven a thornier question.
The history of Tract 3 and the other Champion sister properties dates back to the Seventies. But for many of the residents who became involved in the current wrangle over its fate, the story began early last year, when information began to filter through neighborhood associations that a new development was in the works for the tree-covered tract, a confirmed habitat for endangered golden-cheeked warblers. Thousands of single-family homes and condominiums lie on the other side of the tract, many clustered along City Park Road, where residential and park visitor traffic has already become an issue.
Some, like Shepherd Mountain resident Marisa Lipscher and longtime development watchdog Carol Lee, had been following earlier failed efforts to develop the tract. But others, like Linda Bailey, a Glenlake resident who became a key spokesperson for traffic safety, said she'd never paid much attention to such issues. She and others are aware now: "We're concerned, we're interested, and we're here for the long term." (Lipscher, Bailey, Lee, and Susan Kimbrough would later spearhead the lawsuit as Lake Austin Collective Inc.)
For those new to the matter, there was a definite learning curve. Aside from the daunting technicality of a regular zoning and development case, Champions was complicated by the fact that the land use was already governed by a settlement agreement reached in 1996 between the city and the Champion sisters (surviving daughters of the family that once owned more than 250 acres of land in the area now divided by FM 2222 and Highway 360). That agreement superseded rules and ordinances that would have otherwise applied to the land. The tract had already been the subject of several lawsuits. Most recently, the Champions had entered into a contract to sell the tract, and authorized the prospective buyer, local developer Joe Lamy, through his attorney, Richard Suttle, to request and handle rezoning.
Distrust in the Process
Lamy wanted zoning that would allow for the construction of residential units, and to increase the "trip cap" limiting traffic. The tract lies along an area regulated by the Hill Country Roadway Ordinance, which restricts certain types of building. He submitted a rezoning request to the city in December 2015, which quickly attracted attention: At least a dozen residents turned out to voice concerns to the Zoning and Platting Commission last May, when the rezoning case was first heard. There, too, was Suttle, the well-known land use attorney, who represented Lamy and was authorized to act as an agent for the Champions. Suttle proved a sharp needle and resilient thread who kept the deal moving, weaving deftly through and around the obstacles residents mustered, and delivering the project in a display of expertise in navigating city processes.
Traffic safety was front and center then, with public concern ranging from daily congestion and hazardous driving conditions (blind curves, steep slopes) to a potentially bottlenecked evacuation in the event of wildfire. Speakers were appalled by the idea that additional traffic would be approved for an already hazardous and congested area, without assurances that safety concerns would somehow be addressed. City engineer Scott James acknowledged flaws in the traffic impact analysis supporting the rezoning request, whose scope was set in 2014. But he nevertheless stood by the determinations that adding 2,100 daily trips to the area would not be problematic. Commissioner Betsy Greenberg voiced discomfort with increasing trips without more complete and current traffic analysis data, but other opinions prevailed, likely thanks to concessions Suttle made, such as committing his client to spending $5,000 on signal timing improvements.
Commissioners voted 7-3 to recommend raising the trip limit, along with the other conditions requested by the applicant and supported by city staff. While several commissioners seemed skeptical that residents' traffic fears should slow the project, Susan Harris, an appointee of the district's council member at the time, Sheri Gallo, was especially pointed in her dismissal: "I don't believe you can burden 325 units with a solution to a citywide traffic issue generated by yourselves and others, myself included." She called the traffic impact "negligible."
But even Harris took comfort in knowing the commission would again review the project "at site plan," which Suttle had reassured commissioners would happen. In the end, additional commission-level review was bypassed as part of the agreement approved by Council – one of many procedural upsets that intensified distrust in the process for those who opposed the project.
Postponements and Petitions
A lot happened between the May hearing and City Council's approval of the rezoned tract in early November, much of it outside of the public forum. Council approved the case on first reading on June 23 and on second reading that September, despite continued opposition. In letters and before Council, residents cited traffic safety, but also a potential degradation to the Bull Creek Watershed, on which the tract sits, and a potential desecration of the Hill Country Roadway Ordinance. Brad Rockwell, an attorney hired by several residents, told Council that the city was already at fault with respect to protecting the endangered warbler habitat. "The city of Austin is making permitting decisions that are destructive to habitat and not even following their own obligations under the Fish and Wildlife permit," he later explained.
Even residents who didn't want the deal blocked didn't necessarily like it. Carol Torgrimson, a Long Canyon resident, told Council on Sept. 22 that the proposed agreement was "the best bad deal we could come up with," and urged members to move forward. It's an "opportunity to do something positive with that site which has the least probable negative impact of anything else we could do there," she said.
Council decisions were postponed at least five times, usually at the request of members or staff. At least some of the delays were specifically granted to give Suttle and staff more time for deliberations to craft a deal that both the city and developer could support.
What is less clear is how area residents were faring, despite statements made by both Suttle and CM Gallo that they were working hard to address those residents' concerns. For instance, Gallo requested that the public comment period be kept open to allow concerned residents to continue reacting to developments on the case; she also asked staff to respond to a written list of neighborhood concerns. And on the night of the final vote, Suttle told Council, "I'll say it again. I've never worked so hard for such a small apartment project on 45 acres."
Carol Lee, one of the deal's harshest critics, told the Chronicle via email that there were "many, many meetings with various combinations of attendees: Joe Lamy, Richard Suttle, Kimley Horn engineers, Council staff, city staff, and residents." But those meetings, she said, "wasted a tremendous amount of time." The "real negotiation" went on behind a "dark curtain."
Meanwhile, Gallo publicly voiced her hopes that the parties would resolve their differences, seeming to take on the role of facilitator rather than advocate for the issues her constituents raised. "I want to say that unless we can get to a resolution that addresses the additional concerns that the neighborhoods have, that we will look very closely at voting for this on a final third reading," she declared at that late September meeting.
Against this backdrop, the pending contract drove the agenda. In one instance, Mayor Steve Adler questioned the wisdom of rescheduling a meeting because it would coincide with discussion of another high-profile development project, to which Planning and Zoning staffer Jerry Rusthoven replied: "I believe we have to, because Mr. Suttle has a deadline with regard to a contract." Suttle added that the Sept. 22 deadline was "imperative" to his client. Yet at the same meeting, he admitted, "I didn't get my legal work done and your law department didn't quite get theirs done," while discussing reasons for the delay.
The legal work referred to revisions to the original settlement agreement now being negotiated privately, in addition to the rezoning request. The postponement, however, was recorded as a request by staff, not Suttle – a detail that may have significantly affected the final outcome.
By Nov. 3, when the project's final vote was scheduled, tensions were running high. That morning, neighbors had submitted a petition to the city opposing the rezoning. It was signed by nearly 40% of those who lived directly along the boundary of the area to be rezoned. The petition, if validated, would mean that the rezoning would need the support of at least nine council members. Dozens of area residents had come to testify before Council, or had donated their time to other speakers.
Then came Suttle's request for postponement. Adler appeared hesitant, but deferred to a staff recommendation that it was "Council's custom" to grant a first official request. With the final vote deferred one week, neighborhood advocates still opted to provide more than an hour of public comment, while others saved their time for the day of the final vote. Speakers once more outlined how the development would cause traffic fatalities, hurt the environment, and endanger the water supply – while providing little benefit for Austinites in return.
Jim Duncan, a former city land development services director and nationally renowned urban planner, as well as affected resident, condemned the plan, calling it a "total violation of Imagine Austin" and "a decimation of the two key ordinances which regulate the Hill Country" – the Hill Country Roadway Ordinance and Lake Austin Watershed Ordinance, both of which limit specific types of construction or development to protect the natural features and water sources. Jim Rumbo, president of the Westminster Glen Homeowners Association, lamented a broken process in which the city deprived residents of due process and circumvented its own rules. "Are you so set on the development that you can't hear what's being said?" he asked.
Things moved quickly that next week. Staff notified the applicant that a petition had been submitted – standard procedure, Rusthoven attests. By the following Tuesday, Suttle's law firm, Armbrust & Brown, had emailed newly prepared survey documents and a request for a new boundary on the rezoning case to city staff. A request went out for an expedited revised map that would be ready for the Nov. 10 Council meeting, where Rusthoven announced that the petition, validated the day before, had been invalidated – no residents now lived within 200 feet of the proposed rezoning.
Residents there were shocked and angry. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo commented on their surprise, and briefly questioned the development, asking Rusthoven whether more time would give the residents additional recourse. They had none, Rusthoven told her, and the proceedings continued on.
Jim Duncan later told the Chronicle he believed the city could and should have asked the developer to restart his application in response to the boundary change. Rusthoven disagreed: Applicants can request changes throughout the process, he explained. Only an increase in the boundaries or a request to increase intensity would trigger a need to restart the process.
A Good Deal for the City?
That the Champions Tract 3 project was approved can, in part, be attributed to the persistence of Richard Suttle. But its success also stands as testament to the efforts of city staff, who see their job as a balancing act between honoring the rights of property owners and enforcing rules meant to protect broader public interests. Enter Chuck Lesniak, the city's environmental officer and a primary counterforce brought to bear on making the development project acceptable, at least in terms of environmental considerations.
No one disputes that watershed and other protective ordinances will be violated, sometimes grossly, in the deal the city struck for Champions Tract 3. (For instance, the developer will be allowed to "cut and fill" significantly more of the hillside and to build a much taller structure than would normally be permitted.) But Lesniak was convinced that the owner's original entitlements made development inevitable, and that he was able to get something valuable for the city in return for the exceptions he offered. Chief among these gains was the protection and preservation of a large portion of the tract.
Neighbors asked how approving this five-story, 300,000-square-foot building, to be "shoehorned" into the side of the hill so close to a watershed, could possibly be environmentally superior to the modest 30,000-square-foot office building they believed the existing (non-rezoned) agreement would have allowed. Some argued that the eastern half was no gift and would never have been developed anyway, due to the steep slopes and deep gorge separating the two sides of the tract. They struggled to understand how the city could willingly agree to violate so many of its own values and rules, and were outraged that it seemed more interested in making the deal work for the Champions, who wanted to sell their land, and for the potential buyer, who wanted assurances about what he could build if he bought it, than for those already living in the area.
But to Lesniak, the entitlements given to the Champions in their earlier settlement with the city would have allowed for more dispersed development across the tract and would ultimately create more environmental disturbance. He felt the city was well-served by the deal environmentally. "The development that got approved has significantly less potential to impact Bull Creek negatively than what might have been built under the entitlements that they had," he told the Chronicle. Lesniak also felt some sense of urgency was justified in bringing the deal to closure with this particular developer, who was willing to agree to the preserve, describing it as a "bird in the hand" that would bring some certainty regarding protections to the land.
Suttle was persuasive, too. In what he called an effort to "bolster" the project's compliance with the city's comprehensive plan and Imagine Austin, the attorney interjected affordable housing into the mix moments before the final vote: 10% of the units would be made available for 40 years to those making 80% MFI (median family income), Suttle offered, if Council approved the item that night. A restrictive covenant detailing this requirement was later filed with Travis County.
That same night, traffic safety, by far the deepest source of public opposition to the proposed development, got reduced to concerns over a driveway. City staff gave reassurances that the development as proposed would be safe. Suttle told CM Leslie Pool, who was clearly concerned: "If you were to vote for this tonight, you are not saying anything about the driveway. The driveway comes at the site plan phase. We have to prove it's safe. We have to prove it's necessary." The measure passed moments later, with CMs Pool, Gallo, Ora Houston, and Ann Kitchen opposed.
The property's deed changed hands on Nov. 30, according to Travis Central Appraisal District records. It was deeded not to Joe Lamy, but rather to 2222 Cap Texas LLC, an entity created to own the property, which will be developed and managed by Slate Real Estate Partners of Houston, according to J. Mark Stevenson, founding principal of the Houston-based firm. Stevenson told the Chronicle that Lamy's role was to assist in getting the rezoning accomplished and that Slate had always been the intended developer. Stevenson was aware of the environmental, traffic, and affordable housing issues raised during the rezoning process, but said, "We were not the entity that went through the zoning process," when asked what he thought of the handling of the neighborhood petition and redrawing of tract boundaries. Adding that the firm is "very proud" of the way the development will fit into the neighborhood, Stevenson said, "We never have a closed door," and that the firm would continue welcoming input.
County records also indicate that the tract, valued at $425,000 for the previous three years, is now valued at $1.7 million. Stevenson declined to disclose the purchase price. Lamy did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
County records also indicate that the tract, valued at $425,000 for the previous three years, is now valued at $1.7 million. Stevenson declined to disclose the purchase price. Lamy did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
No Second Chances
Champions Tract 3 sits in District 10, the district Council Member Alison Alter won handily in December's run-off, although she trailed Gallo in November's general election. Her upset was largely attributed to intensifying opposition over North Central/Northwest developments like the Grove at Shoal Creek and Austin Oaks, and the feeling that Gallo, a real estate agent, was too close to developers.
But voters in and around Champions Tract 3 also played a part. In fact, while voters in the three precincts immediately adjacent to the tract had given Gallo 7% of her general election votes, the same areas gave Alter 9% of her total winning votes in the run-off, an impressive 1,307 given the sparse population and low turnout during the run-off. Marisa Lipscher's Nov. 3 statement to Council foreshadowed the upset: "We want to make sure you all understand very well today that we are not happy constituents. We are deeply, deeply unhappy. We do not feel represented at all. And we ask that you please listen to everyone today carefully and to all of these arguments. And to deny this rezoning."
Alter told the Chronicle she would have asked more questions had she been on the dais the night of the final vote, mostly about the environmental impact of the variances and the process by which the petition was invalidated. "It's just wrong that you can come up at the very last minute and change the boundaries of the zoning case and invalidate the petition without any time for the public to react," she said. "It is a clear manipulation of the process." Alter also had concerns about the way traffic safety was handled, a huge issue for the neighborhood and one she said points to a hole in the process: "Our mechanisms for evaluating the zoning cases don't allow us to factor in safety before somebody dies." She raised hope that CodeNEXT will help address some of those problems and calm the distrust many residents have in how city processes treat residents. Sheri Gallo did not respond to requests for comment.
It remains to be seen how the court will respond to the Aleshire lawsuit, and if the original vote were voided, what a new vote would bring. Aleshire told the Chronicle he expects motions for summary judgment on the case by August or September.
If the Pilot Knob decision is any guide, the group may at least get another vote. In that case, Judge Stephen Yelenosky found that the city had not properly notified the public regarding a Council action that included waiving of development and water impact fees amounting to an estimated $50 to $80 million for the Pilot Knob PUD. Yelenosky's ruling voided Council's vote. In a letter explaining his decision, the judge said, "Matters of special interest require special notice because no individual can attend every meeting of every public body. Members of the public must make choices in their public and personal lives, and the purpose of notice is to enable them to do so intelligently."
Lake Austin Collective Inc. (l-r): Marisa Lipscher, Linda Bailey, Carol Lee, Susan Kimbrough
By Joe Clifton
A group of Lake Austin homeowners on Monday sued the city of Austin, claiming that the city’s notice concerning the zoning and waiver of environmental regulations on what is known as the Champion tract, was inadequate and therefore violated the Texas Open Meetings Act.
According to the lawsuit filed by the Lake Austin Collective Inc., when City Council approved new zoning for the tract on City Park Road on Nov. 10, the notice failed to mention that it would also be approving waivers of environmental regulations as well as the Hill Country Roadway Ordinance.
As the Austin Monitor reported in April, the group notified the city of its intention to sue and gave Council 45 days to post the item on its agenda again with notice of the pertinent waivers. However, the city failed to do so.
The claims are very similar to the allegations made by Brian Rodgers when he sued the city for violating the Open Meetings Act after Council approved the zoning changes and diversion of money from the Austin Water Utility for affordable housing at Pilot Knob. The city lost that case and Council then reposted the item, minus the diversion of utility money, and approved it once again on Nov. 10, the same day it approved the Champion tract zoning change.
Attorney Bill Aleshire, an open meetings expert, filed both suits.
Although they do not usually comment on pending litigation, a spokesperson for the city released the following comment: “The City of Austin appreciates having had the opportunity to review the issue before the plaintiffs filed the lawsuit, but we disagree with Mr. Aleshire’s interpretation of the Texas Open meetings Act. We believe the City gave appropriate public notice about the subject matter to be discussed. In fact, the record shows that this issue had a robust public engagement process.”
There were two items on the Nov. 10 agenda related to the Champion tract. One of those was the zoning case and the other was an ordinance authorizing adoption of an amendment to the settlement of the lawsuit Josie Champion and her sisters filed against the city in 1994.
The Lake Austin Collective’s lawsuit points out that the caption of the ordinance Council adopted includes the following notice: “… and waiving certain sections of City Code Chapter 25-2 and Lake Austin Watershed Regulations …” Chapter 25-2 refers to zoning regulations, including the Hill Country Roadway regulations. Although waiver of the watershed regulations and Chapter 25-2 was noted in the caption, that information was not part of the meeting notice.
The Lake Austin Collective argues the Nov. 10 adoption of the zoning ordinance and the waiver of environmental regulations should be declared void because of the city’s failure to include that notice on Council’s agenda.
According to the lawsuit, “The Council’s action was highly significant because it endangers the Lake Austin water supply, increases traffic dangers, sets a precedent for granting waivers and variances that were never considered by the appropriate commissions.”
The lawsuit points out that in the posting of various other zoning items on their agendas, the city has included similar language. The posting for the Villas at Vinson Oak said, “the ordinance may include waiver of fees.”
And when Council approved the zoning for the contentious Grove at Shoal Creek planned unit development, the posting said, “The ordinance may include exemption from or waiver of fees, alternative funding methods, modification of City regulations, and acquisition of property.”
In another controversial case, the Austin Oaks PUD, the agenda stated: “The ordinance may include waiver of fees, alternative funding methods, modifications of City regulations, and acquisition of property.”
The lawsuit also alleges, “The City Council deceived the neighborhoods and gamed the system of citizen review of such developments.” This section of the plaintiff’s petition notes that the zoning change and other changes were approved by a simple majority, with a 7-4 vote. Council members Sheri Gallo, Ora Houston, Ann Kitchen and Leslie Pool voted no.
If the developer had not pulled back the area to be rezoned from the boundaries of the property by a little more than 200 feet, the neighbors would have had a valid petition and four votes would’ve been enough to reject the zoning and other changes. It was not City Council, but the attorney for the developer, Richard Suttle, who changed the area to be rezoned. He is not the first to employ this tactic and it is legal. However, the petition says the neighbors were not aware of the revised map until they got to the Council meeting.
“Because the Council majority condoned the surreptitious tactics, with only last-minute exposure of what was really being done, not only did the super majority vote not apply, but Plaintiff’s members and others were barred from providing formal input before the Council voted on the final ordinances,” the lawsuit states.
The variances and waivers approved on Nov. 10 were not reviewed by any land use commission, such as the Zoning and Platting Commission or the Planning Commission, as would normally be the case. Plaintiffs say, “Council not only violated the (Texas Open Meetings Act) notice provision but the importance of the action the Council took is enhanced because it bypassed the City lay-person commissions for review and recommendation before such variances and waivers are granted.”
Plaintiffs are seeking not only to have the Council action on the Champion tract declared void but are also asking for “an injunction to prevent such Council actions in the future.”
By Elizabeth Findell
Following through on an ultimatum he issued two months ago, attorney and former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire filed a second lawsuit against the city of Austin on Sunday alleging Texas Open Meetings Act violations.
“Chalk this case up to the category, ‘Some People Just Never Learn,’ ” the second sentence of the suit reads.
Aleshire filed the lawsuit on behalf of a group of opponents of the so-called Champions tract development. It claims the wording of the City Council meeting’s agenda posted in advance of last year’s votes on the tract didn’t adequately describe what the council did.
Aleshire won a similar suit against the city in October regarding a City Council vote on an Easton Park development deal. A judge struck down fee waivers of $50 million to $80 million to support affordable housing at the Southeast Austin development, also known as Pilot Knob, because the posted agenda item mentioned only rezoning of the property.
Council members rescinded that action — on the same November day they voted for a settlement agreement and rezoning related to the Champions property, a planned apartment complex near RM 2222 and Loop 360. The suit argues that the posted wording didn’t give the public notice of ordinance amendments that waived some watershed regulations to allow more of the site to be covered by pavement or buildings.
“You cannot read that and tell what they’re planning to do,” said Aleshire, who also recently sued Visit Austin (the former Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau), accusing it of withholding public records.
The Lake Austin Collective, described in the lawsuit as a watchdog group for environmental and open government issues, is the plaintiff in the lawsuit. The group has existed for nearly a decade but formally incorporated as a nonprofit just weeks before Aleshire’s April letter to the city. Its size is unclear, but state registration lists Marisa Lipscher, Linda Bailey, Susan Kimbrough and Carol Lee as its representatives.
The group argues that the development will harm bird life in the area, increase traffic dangers and potentially increase runoff pollution.
Aleshire’s letter to City Attorney Anne Morgan gave council members 45 days to repost and revote on the Champions deal, and he included a copy of the lawsuit he said he would file if they didn’t.
After that, Aleshire said he received no formal response from the city but heard from Assistant City Attorney Michael Siegel that he didn’t believe it was necessary to redo the posting.
“Austin appreciates having had the opportunity to review the issue before the plaintiffs filed the lawsuit, but we disagree with Mr. Aleshire’s interpretation of the Texas Open Meetings Act,” the city said in an emailed statement Monday. “We believe the city gave appropriate public notice about the subject matter to be discussed. In fact, the record shows that this issue had a robust public engagement process.”
The Champions tract is in the West Austin District 10 of new Council Member Alison Alter, whose predecessor, Sheri Gallo, was one of four council members to vote against the zoning change in November. Alter said this week that she, too, has reservations about the development and frequently hears concerns about its environmental impact.
With a lawsuit looming, Alter couldn’t speak to why the council didn’t repost the item but suggested her colleagues were reluctant to give in too easily to opponents of a project trying to change a vote.
“That’s up to the majority of the council to (repost), and I think there’s concerns about precedents as to how we write our language,” she said.
A lawsuit contends the city's agenda in late 2016 did not provide enough information.
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