Within the next 30 years, the City of Austin foresees the vast swath of largely undeveloped land known as Robinson Ranch to be one of Northwest Austin’s most bustling urban hubs, filled with shopping centers, high-density housing, and parks and trails.
But for now, the city can do nothing but wait for the property’s owner, the Robinson family, to sell portions for development as it sees fit. And, as has historically been the case, the family appears to be in no rush, though recent development activity nearby is increasing pressure for change, said attorney David Armbrust, who has known the family for about 40 years and is authorized to speak on its behalf.
Apple Inc. is building a new campus on 40 acres directly south of the ranch on Parmer Lane. On the northern tip of the property, O’Connor Drive is being extended to meet Toll 45, which will better connect the area to Round Rock.
“They are very patient,” Armbrust said. “They’re not the typical landowner who sells to the highest bidder. It is more of a deliberate, thoughtful process,” he said.
Owned by the Robinson family for more than 100 years, the 8,000-square-acre property stretches north from MoPac and Parmer Lane to RM 620. The city annexed the land in 2004, and it remains one of the few empty tracts in Northwest Austin, making possibilities for what could become of it seemingly endless.
“They can do office, multifamily, retail development, commercial development and, of course, residential development,” said Jerry Rusthoven, a manager in the city’s Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department. “Really, it’s pretty wide open on what they can do.”
Historically, the Robinsons have seemed more inclined to sell land for projects that will benefit the community. Over the past few decades, outer plots have been sold for construction of Toll 45, Loop 1, Round Rock ISD schools, St. David’s Medical Center Round Rock, Abbott Labs and Freescale.
The family sold almost 10 acres to Epoch Properties earlier in 2012 for an apartment complex to be located at 13401 Legendary Drive, according to city documents.
In the city’s Imagine Austin comprehensive plan, which directs the city’s growth and land development policies, Robinson Ranch is one of three so-called regional centers in Northwest Austin. The others are in the Great Hills area and around the intersection of RM 620 and US 183. The city intends to grow the centers by 25,000–45,000 people and 5,000–25,000 jobs during the course of the next few decades.
What form this growth will take in reality is very much in the hands of the Robinson family. The city zoned the property as a planned unit development (PUD), which Rusthoven said gives the owners more flexibility on how the property can be developed.
Once the land is sold, the city will be able to collect taxes on the property.
At the time of the Robinson Ranch annexation, there was talk of locating a medical school associated with The University of Texas on the land. The thought seemed in line with the types of projects the Robinsons have previously agreed to, but Armbrust said there have been no discussions on the matter.
Furthermore, UT has indicated that it would prefer for the facility to be close to its Central Austin campus, people familiar with the matter said. UT spokeswoman Tara Doolittle said that it was too early to talk location in regards to a medical school since stakeholders are still working on funding for the school.
The land’s value
Real estate experts agree that the Robinson Ranch land is valuable. Just how valuable is more difficult to pinpoint.
“I don’t think anyone knows how much it’s worth,” said Fred Higgins, an investment properties specialist at NAI REOC Austin, a local real estate services firm. “I bet some acres are valued as low as $2,000 an acre up to $80,000 or $100,000 per acre.”
Then there are the potential sensitive environmental features of the land, which could alter its worth, he said. For instance, it could have underground caves—porous underground rock through which water drains into the aquifers that run into area streams.
“Ultimately, all those issues come out when you’re getting closer to actually developing. So it’s impossible to put a value on that property,” Higgins said.
He said that what is clear, though, is that the land is valuable—”insanely valuable.” And, Rusthoven said, its PUD zoning could make the land even more salable.
“What [the Robinsons] could do is they could sell a piece of it to someone and the price that that person pays will be reflected in the fact that [the buyer] won’t have to go through the city’s zoning process to get the right to do whatever they want to do,” Rusthoven said. “They will still have to get permission through the site plan process and building permits, but that’s not the tough part.”