By JO CLIFTON, Austin Monitor
Lake Austin Collective, the neighborhood group that has fought, threatened and sued over the fate of the Champion tract on RM 2222, may have finally found a hero in entrepreneur Jonathan Coon, the founder of 1-800 Contacts.
Coon has taken an option on the tract and promised far less development, far less traffic and considerably greater environmental protection than offered under the plan City Council approved on Feb. 15.
Coon is the owner of a nearby area of land known as the Camelback tract, a 145-acre tract on Lake Austin. The Austin Business Journal reported last summer that the property had been appraised for tax purposes at $33.7 million.
He told the Austin Monitor on Feb. 19 that he signed an option on the Champion tract on the night of Feb. 14, the night before Council voted to allow the development sought by the current owner, Slate Real Estate Partners. Council approved the zoning on a vote of 6-5 the next day.
On the day Coon signed the option, the Lake Austin Collective sent a letter to Council urging it to reject the proposed zoning that has been the subject of so much debate, bitterness and legal bills, and to move quickly on what is called the Camelback compromise.
On Feb. 1, the day Council postponed action on the Champion tract, which is located at 6409 City Park Rd., Mark Stevenson of Slate Real Estate Partners urged Council to stand by the decision it made in 2016 granting the zoning and variances that would allow development of approximately 300,000 square feet. He said the only reason Council had an opportunity to vote on the matter again was because the city had made a mistake.
“We can’t believe we’re in this predicament,” he said, noting that his firm had already spent more than $2 million preparing plans for the development since Council’s prior approval.
But now, Coon said, everyone is on the same page – both the neighbors and Stevenson agree that the best way to proceed is to combine consideration of the Camelback project and the Champion tract.
Instead of 300,000-square-feet of mostly apartments, Coon said he and his wife, Kirsten, are offering approximately 120,000-square feet of senior living facilities on the western portion of the land. The eastern portion of the property “will be dedicated as a true conservation easement,” according to the neighborhood’s letter.
In addition, Coon said with less development and with senior citizens living on the property, the number of trips each day would be reduced by approximately 75 percent. And according to the Lake Austin Collective letter, the controversial primary driveway would be moved from City Park Road to RM 2222. “Overall,” the group concluded, “the impact on the environment and traffic will be significantly less.”
As for the Camelback property, Coon said, “It’s an iconic location, and we’re planning to turn half of the lakefront property – 1,500 of 3,000 feet – into a park and have it open to the public, and provide access and a trail up to the overlook next to the bridge. The only current access point is next to the highway and Loop 360 Bridge, and it’s covered with multiple no-parking signs from (the Texas Department of Transportation). This is a solution that helps TxDOT solve the traffic at the intersection and still keep access open to the overlook.”
Coon recognizes that moving through the city process at the rapid clip that he envisions is a daunting task. However, he said he wants to be the point person because “we plan to live in this neighborhood. We want it to be nice.” But he has also hired a team that includes attorneys at McLean & Howard, engineers at Kimley-Horn, land planner Stefan Pharis and San Antonio architecture firm Overland Partners.
“Lots of people say it’s going to be almost impossible to do this within six months,” he said. But individually, Coon said, each member of his team claims, “‘We won’t be the reason you can’t get it done.’”
“This is an unusual situation, where everybody should unanimously support this, … because no matter how (Council members) voted (Feb. 15), they should be in support of this plan,” he concluded.
Austin Monitor, an online, nonpartisan, 501(c)3 nonprofit publication that covers local government and politics in and around Austin.