AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin city council is expected to vote tonight on a proposed development that would change one of Austin’s most iconic locations forever. Jonathan Coon, the millionaire founder of 1-800-CONTACTS, wants to build condos, shops and more on north shore of Lake Austin, just west of the Pennybacker Bridge.
People have been parking on Loop 360 — illegally — and hiking up to take pictures overlooking the bridge for so long it feels like that land belongs to the people of Austin. It doesn’t.
Coon bought the 145 acre lot last year.
“My wife and I wanted to live here. We just couldn’t afford to be the only people who do,” he said while giving me a tour of the property this summer.
Coon says a zoning plan dating back to 1986 allows him to develop “every inch” of the property, but that’s not what he wants to do.
Standing on a scissor lift overlooking the land, Coon explained that condos take up less space than single-family homes, which allows him to also build a hotel, restaurant and office space. It also allows him to sweeten the pot for the city of Austin.
Coon plans to donate nearly 30 acres of land for a city park with a trail leading to the 360 overlook and a place for Instagrammers to park legally.
Neighbors have sent letters to the Zoning and Platting Commission backing Coon’s plan. On the south side of the river, it’s a different story.
“I look over there and I see dollar signs,” says Lyra Bemis, standing on her dock, pointing at Coon’s land.
Bemis is the president of the Bunny Run Neighborhood Association. She has been one of the fiercest opponents of Coon’s plan, but she insists she’s not a NIMBYist (“not in my backyard”).
She doesn’t even mind the condos. It’s the 600-foot dock and a 5,000-square foot clubhouse she’s worried about. By law, both must have bathrooms which means all that waste would have to be pumped away from the lake.
“At any point in time, something like that could fail because they’re going to have to pump it up 200 feet to the top and [if it fails] it’s going to go into the lake.”
Bemis has other concerns about the dock. She says it would narrow the channel boats can pass through, creating more traffic on an already busy part of the lake.
And then there’s the elevator.
The cliffs on Coon’s property are roughly 200 feet high. He has proposed building an elevator or an incline to get people down to the water. In order to do that, he would need the city to give him a pass on some regulations.
The city Zoning and Platting department, Parks and Recreation and the Environmental Commission have recommended the city approve Coon’s plan with some exceptions and some concerns about things like the elevator.
But Bemis is afraid the city may be setting a new precedent if it gives Coon the greenlight.
“People in the past who have been turned down are going to re-apply and use the same logic and or possibly take legal action against the city.”
The city council will hear from both sides on Thursday but they won’t vote until Nov. 1 at the earliest. If they decide to punt, it may kill the whole deal.
Coon was able to win support from his neighbors, in part, by promising to also buy a piece of land slated for apartments and build a senior living facility instead. His option on that property expires Nov. 2. If he can’t deliver the senior living facility, he may find opponents on both sides of Lake Austin.