Great Hills shopping area could be rezoned for residential

Manuel's restaurant and Arbor Cinema movie theaters are on the property where Great Hills Retail is proposing a residential rezoning in North Austin. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard.)
Manuel's restaurant and Arbor Cinema movie theaters are on the property where Great Hills Retail is proposing a residential rezoning in North Austin. (KXAN Photo/ Alyssa Goard.)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — When word got out about a proposal to rezone a property where a popular northwest Austin restaurant and movie theater are housed, the community filled social media and Council Member Alison Alter’s inbox with their concerns.

Alter, who represents District 10 explained Sunday that she’d first heard about the proposal by Great Hills Retail Inc. to rezone a portion of the shopping center several weeks ago. The property is in her district near US 183 and Jollyville Road. Last week, her constituents began asking questions about whether that area could soon see hundreds of new apartments.

“What we’ve been hearing from people is that they’re concerned about traffic, they’re concerned about Manuel’s [restaurant] and Arbor Cinema, and they are concerned about whether or not these apartments would be affordable, and depending on the development of the residential, what the impacts on the schools would be,” Alter said.

Phase one of the project would redevelop the area where Manuel’s Restaurant and Arbor Cinema Regal Movie Theater now sit, explained Amanda Swor with the Drenner Group who represents Great Hills Retail. Swor explained that Great Hills Retail has owned the property for a while and has the right to build more commercial development in the area. The company is asking city council to grant them the right to build a residential development there.

Swor explained that no businesses nearby will close right away. Those businesses won’t close until either their leases expire or both parties reach an agreement. She said the absolute soonest the Great Hills Shopping Center could see changes would be three years from now, though it will likely take longer.

Swor said Great Hills Retail sees the shopping center as “underdeveloped,” meaning it is a highly accessible area with more room for potential businesses, parking and housing.

But because of mounting public worries, Council Member  Alter said the council vote on this rezoning request was pushed back to Nov. 9, giving all parties time to hold a community meeting.

Alter will hold the meeting in her district, she and the developer will be present to answer questions and hear public concerns about the plan. She wants to hear what her constituents are worried about while also educating them about complicated factors in this plan, for example that a residential development will have less of an impact on traffic than a commercial development.

The meeting will be on Nov. 1 at 7 p.m. at 9828 Great Hills Trail, Suite 550 in Austin. It is open to everyone.

“I think it’s wonderful that people love their Austin grown businesses like Manuel’s and Arbor [Cinema], and I’m sure that it means the world to those businesses,” Alter said. “But one of the things we have to understand with zoning is we don’t get to control who gets those leases, that’s something that’s up to the private property holders.”

The owner of Manuel’s restaurant said they plan to continue business as usual.

“You can’t believe how many people we’re having to explain this to, it’s unbelievable,” said Manuel’s restaurant co-owner Greg Koury. His Austin Mexican restaurants have existed for 34 years and the location at Great Hills has been in place since 1998.

Koury said that almost every day patrons now walk into the Great Hills restaurant mistakenly thinking they are facing an imminent move. He’s trained his staff to correct them because Manuel’s has a lease contract at that location for another 10 years. The restaurant has no intentions of going anywhere, at least not at this time, Koury said.

Koury said the developers have been up front with him about their plan, and actually approached him last year saying they were considering rezoning.

“They made it very clear to me that we would be the controlling interest and they would need our permission to go forward,” Koury said. He added that the developers told him the residential plan they are proposing could include up to 500 apartment units.

Koury said over the years as his Great Hills restaurant location has been open, he’s seen the area demographics shift as more young adults and people working in white collar jobs and high tech move in nearby.

“There has been an increase in housing, so of course more people have moved into the area,” Koury said. “How much more can be sustained with the current infrastructure? That’s a good question for us to consider. I’m not certain.”

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