Plans for 19 acres of retail, residential, hotel space on Lady Bird Lake clear Austin Planning Commission

Ben Thompson |
Source: Community Impact Newspaper

A proposal that would bring millions of square feet of residential and commercial space to Austin’s South Central Waterfront moved one step closer to breaking ground Feb. 9 after passing through the Austin Planning Commission.

Endeavor Real Estate Group’s redevelopment of the Austin American-Statesman property at 305 S. Congress Ave. has been in the works for years. The 19-acre “Statesman PUD,” or planned unit development, would see the newspaper facility razed for the construction of a new mixed-use skyline on Lady Bird Lake’s south shore.

While project plans are not final, the development proposal features 1,300-plus apartments or condominiums, a 275-room hotel, and 1.65 million square feet of retail and office space adjacent to public waterfront parkland.

Planning commissioners spent several hours digging into the complex development, which has moved through city reviews of environmental, recreational and other planning considerations since last year. The commission previously considered the updated Statesman PUD in December, when it pushed off a final vote to spend more time hashing out the details of the expansive plan.

The bulk of the February meeting covered additional requirements for the project outline written by a small working group of commissioners, partially to bridge the gap between city asks and the development team’s desires. Amendments covered issues such as the amount of affordable apartments and parking to be included, the maintenance of new parkland and covering additional costs for local improvements. Most pieces were approved as add-ons to the project proposal during discussions stretching until early Feb. 9.

Those discussions were the latest in a series of trade-offs made through the process that will grant Endeavor’s project additional entitlements, such as dozens of stories of additional height. In exchange, public benefits including affordable housing, parkland, a new bat observation area, an extension of Barton Springs Road and other transportation improvements are lined up.

After running through a series of votes on tweaks to the PUD request, the commission forwarded the package to City Council with a unanimous vote. The mixed-use district plan will be reviewed again by city staff and will likely be set to appear before council in the coming months.

Tax plans

While the PUD would be a private venture from Endeavor, it has attracted some concerns over its relationship to public amenities—and possibly tax revenue.

The development planning has progressed alongside council’s consideration of a tax increment reinvestment zone, or TIRZ, in the broader South Central Waterfront district. A TIRZ can allow cities to target “blighted” or underdeveloped areas in town by funding local infrastructure improvements with gains in property tax revenue pulled from the zone; collections would increase as more development takes place.

City officials have contended at times that a TIRZ is needed to allow the south shore area to develop in an ideal way. And Richard Suttle, a land use attorney and trustee for the South Congress property, said last year that Endeavor’s vision “just doesn’t work” without the tax zone.

“We won’t build the plan if there’s no TIRZ,” he said.

A note on Endeavor’s project website also states that park features, new roadways and other infrastructure “will require” tax increment financing. However, several Austin residents and neighborhood groups contend that redirecting city taxes to the private plan amounts to a handout for a development that is already progressing on its own.

The Statesman PUD plan moves ahead while the city has yet to lay out the TIRZ’s creation. While council voted in favor of a preliminary TIRZ plan in December, members were more reserved about officially establishing the zone and its tax level during an early February workshop meeting on the topic. Council members also floated the possibility of backing away from a TIRZ in favor of other financing options for the waterfront district, although no firm decisions on a next step were made.