As discussions ebb and flow at the "charrette" this week, taking place at the JCC in NW Austin, the conversation about what kind of hotel, or which hotel chain comes up. The same happens when the idea of retail and restaurants is discussed. What restaurant group will come in, folks wonder? And then the ideas and hopes of the locals run the gamut of local fare, like Tacodeli or New World Deli or Huts Hamburgers... Some folks are hoping for upscale style restaurants, like Uchi, or hip local fare, like Buffalina. All would be great! But have you ever considered Hooters? How about some Neon Signage along Wood Hollow and Hart Lane and Executive Center Drive to draw you into the new and improved Austin Oaks?
It hadn't occurred to many of us that this was a possibility until this little Spire Realty news nugget popped in on Tuesday. Turns out that Spire Realty Group, the owner of Austin Oaks made the news in Fort Worth about a recent lease to a restaurant in one of their neighborhood revitalization projects. The restaurant? You guessed it: Hooters. The story is here. (http://www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/New-Hooters-Draws-Ire-of-Some-Downtown-Fort-Worth-Residents-366634661.html)
What's more fun to find out is that this isn't the first Hooters - Spire location in the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex. The first venture between the two made headlines in September of 2015 in yet another neighborhood redevelopment project. The story is here with a catchy headline: Original breastaurant motorboats its way to scenic North Texas harbor. ( http://dallas.culturemap.com/news/restaurants-bars/09-14-15-lake-ray-hubbard-breastaurant-hooters/)
Now that you have this information to noodle-on, and can continue your thinking about all the possibilities for Austin Oaks in its new and better redevelopment...let's recap what we have been experiencing at this "charrette" and what's it true purpose really is.
Firstly, ten years ago, we had never heard the word “charrette.” Had you asked us what it meant, we would have guessed “a jaunty French hat” or “a tiny little chair” or some such. That was before we did a little research... It means "carte" but that is not the point. Er, or maybe it is. Stay with us here and keep reading.
The big idea is that the charrette is a series of week-long meetings to gather public input about Austin Oaks and its redevelopment. Only these aren't your typical public meetings. They are charrettes.
We have since learned that the difference between public meetings and charrettes is defined by the level of pre-school craftiness involved. If you sit in a chair the whole time listening to a presentation, you are most likely at a public meeting.
But if the experience is "interactive," if you are allowed to walk around to different “stations” and draw on big white boards and play with glue sticks and colored dots and maps, well, then, you have been charretted. Its much better.
We have all seen this same exercise play out again and again in other parts of our life. The public is asked to give input, then their opinions are ignored, the developer and his agents and advocates and city staff do exactly what they had planned to do all along, and the so-called public process is lauded. It’s shameless political theater.
This week, we have attended more than 10 hours of charrette meetings and presentations for the Austin Oaks redevelopment plan and it has been inspiring to see residents from across the neighborhoods (Allandale, North Shoal Creek, Balcones Civic area and Northwest Hills area) enthusiastically drawing and cutting and pasting and dreaming about the future of our community. All centered around the promise by NWACA board members and the developer's agents, made back in October to the City of Austin and to our own ZAP Commissioners, that this charrette would be fair and include TRUE options for consideration for ALL zoning possibilities. The "charrette" was to include an option for redevelopment under current zoning, some other conventional zoning scenarios to be determined, and more specialized zoning (like PUD zoning). The neighbors went home thinking, okay. We'll try this.
Now, nearly three days into the "charrette," we have been presented with a series of 3 options and a baseline option called "code compliant" that is meant to reflect what could be built in the current zoning scenario. The rub is that we are ONLY allowed to vote and give input on the three (3) options that are not-current zoning!
On Tuesday night they unveiled 3 options with names and letters so we could keep track. They were: A (the Heritage option), B (the Esperanza option), and C (the Balcones option). All three are basically PUD's, or designed to confuse the term. Regardless, none depict current zoning as an option. Don't believe the tripe being bandied about over on the NWACA facebook pages by a select few PTA moms. Its mis-information. Or dis-information. You decide for yourself what you want to call it.
Regardless, its noteworthy that the first day's drawings A, B and C, were unveiled and showed nothing built over 5 stories tall...but the fine print said 6-8 stories on a few images and notations. The key information shared by Mr. Farr as he walked the group through the options, was this one little pesky slide that said for every $1,000,000 worth of "amenities" (like parks and such) the developer would require a "trade off" from the neighborhood of 15,000 sq feet of additional office equivalent square footage.
So, it was no surprise after the small, but vocal group who all are lovingly called IwannaparkonMopac said, "See we can have our park. And you "no pudders" are all wrong about this charrette."
Now, save your applause, because this is getting good.
Fast forward to the next night's unveiling (Wednesday night).
Much to the surprise of the Tuesday night pro-park PUD fans, the drawings unveiled on Wednesday showed 8 - 10 story buildings and various other "modifications" to their dreamy on-site health club facility, senior housing, hip hotel, various parks and bustling retail restaurant areas. "What happened?!" they wanted to know??
To which, the ever amiable, Doug Farr, replied with calm exhaustion, "Folks, we discussed those "amenities" come at a trade off price and that based on your selection the drawings would be updated to reflect those trade offs... "
So, with their little balloons popped, the new Wednesday night design, lovingly called Drawings D and E, respectively, were a bit deflating. It was watching a Dr. Seuss book being read to children with their mouths agape.
Then came the forced vote again. Neighbors were asked to vote, by raising their hands this time, to select the option form D or E, they preferred. No mention or consideration of current zoning was again ALLOWED. To the dismay of many (and I do mean many) repeated requests (from Tuesday and carried forward to Wednesday) for the option to take a vote on a current zoning, we were told politely, NO.
Its notable that none of the smart, thoughtful input from residents had been incorporated into the current zoning drawing options. They were the developer, architect and event manager's PUD centric plans from the inception (shockingly more similar to the 1.4MM square foot options presented last year), and not neighborhood-friendly ones, at all.
To say that folks were incensed, would be an understatement. And this time it wasn't just those pesky Stop the PUD folks. It was an across the board sentiment. The questions and whisperings about our City Council representative backing this charrette process were all abuzz.
It suddenly became clear last night that all those meetings, those fancy “charrette" talking points, have been a sham designed to exploit residents’ reasonable expectation that their voices matter, when in fact, they do not. In the end, come Thursday night and Friday mid-day, the only options we are being allowed to consider are being carefully railroaded into one clear direction: a PUD or a new cool term "a development agreement". Regardless its going to be taller, denser and maybe have a HOOTERS! :)
Writer's note: Over the course of my professional life, I have seen this same exercise play out again and again. The public is asked to give input, then their opinions are ignored, city staff does what it had planned to do all along, and the so-called public process is lauded. It’s shameless political theater.
This same chicanery is playing out yet again, as our City Council awaits an outcome from this this PUD Charrette, it will no doubt reflect on what other developer PUD applicants in Austin, TX do to get their way in Austin zoning. Mayor Adler and our own council members Sheri Gallo and Leslie Pool are no doubt watching this closely. Both face re-election this year. I'd hazard to guess that the neighborhoods on both sides of Mopac are 80+% against this re-zoning and want current zoning to hold. Especially with the recent news that the only Mopac entrance ramp to the HOV for the Allandale, North Shoal Creek, Crestview area is planned for Anderson Lane-Spicewood intersection. But, I digress. The council needs something to distract the public long enough to get their version of the future Austin approved. This charrette is playing a nice role.
And, yes, if this one yields a PUD for the Spire Group, you can bet your tail feathers that there will be more charrettes. Michael Whellan and Ben Luckens and Joyce Statz will be the Developer's dream team consultants in Austin. :) (We really do need a font for sarcasm.)
Lastly, even if you don’t give a fig about the Austin Oaks development, this brazen deception should concern you. The dirty little secret, the one that Spire and Whellan and Gallo and a few others hope you don’t catch onto, is this: The design of the Austin Oaks charrette isn't legally binding and has no bearing on anything except pacifying the neighborhoods to get the zoning application approved and through. It can’t be changed once they get their PUD zoning. And to enforce it, we (the neighborhood people) have to band together and sue. Hardly a winning scenario. Very detailed plans will be done after the zoning case is approved. And the city staff and select council members have confirmed that the city must adhere to the code and listen to their constituents and donor supporters respectively. The only question at this point is what shade of lipstick to put on this charrette pig.
My hope is that residents have grown tired of this charrette charade. That they will put away the colorful markers and set down the glue sticks and head to the ballot box. That they will set their sights on the keys to City Hall in the next election. Some dismiss us as a tiny "fringe group" but so far we have a fan base of about 80% of the neighborhood voters. Others refer to us as the people with tinfoil hats. When they call you names, you know you are making headway.
Worse case, you can all meet up at Hooters to discuss it. We hear they have an in with Spire to get a lease. LOL!