Developers say hurdles remain, but traffic flow is attractive
A mere 1.4 miles of roadway built to improve circulation in a crowded corner of Williamson County might just be the catalyst that spurs development in the largest tract of undeveloped land in the area.
The extension of O'Connor Drive from RM 620 to Toll 45 appears to hold plenty of possibility as it cuts through Williamson County's densest precinct, opening up acres of land to what will likely be a heavily trafficked area.
"Commercial use–wise, it's very attractive," said Russ Boles, a principal with Summit Commercial Industrial Properties Inc. and the representative of property at the intersection of the extension and Toll 45.
However, development in the area faces a number of hurdles, developers warn. Environmental concerns, a lack of utilities and the unique nature of Robinson Ranch—the largest tract of land in the area—all could give potential developers pause.
"The road's not the whole bag. It's everything else. It's everything else that's holding it back," Boles said.
A north-south connector between RM 620 and Toll 45 has been in the works since at least 2004, when Williamson County Precinct 1 Commissioner Lisa Birkman took office. She said even at that time, traffic on RM 620 was a top concern for her precinct.
RM 620, she said, was not built for the amount of traffic it was handling. Bracketed by major highways on both ends, RM 620 was supporting traffic for a major hospital, a high school, elementary schools and all of the traffic from the Brushy Creek neighborhoods.
And county officials believe that without the O'Connor reliever, things would only get worse.
"This is all going to be commercial and residential," said Robert Daigh, Williamson County senior director of infrastructure, pointing to a map of the undeveloped area around RM 620. "It is [already] this crowded with this much undeveloped land."
The O'Connor Drive extension added 1.4 miles to O'Connor at the cost of $6 million to the county, plus an additional $415,000 to connect the south end of Great Oaks Drive to O'Connor. That portion of O'Connor is finished, and county officials say they expect the Great Oaks extension should be finished this fall.
The connection to Toll 45, however, is still a ways off. TxDOT is handling that portion of the road construction and paying 75 percent of the $25 million price tag with the county covering the remainder. TxDOT spokesman John Hurt said although under construction now, he expected the connection would not be complete until the end of 2013.
O'Connor Drive will open as soon as the connection to Great Oaks Drive is complete, but Birkman said it would be unlikely to carry much traffic until the toll interchange is complete, as it will simply form a small loop.
"This is going to make it more attractive," Boles said of the commercial appeal around road extension.
As one of the largest swaths of undeveloped land in the area, the open fields and forested areas south of RM 620 represent a potential cornucopia of developable space.
The O'Connor extension opens up nearly 2 miles of completely open space in one of the densest parts of the county, and the county projects that by 2015, more than 20,000 vehicles will use the extension daily.
That density, Boles said, is key to bringing in major retailers that need a certain level of density before even considering a site.
Nearby Highland Horizon appears to be one of the major beneficiaries of the new road. The residential neighborhood currently has just one entrance and exit at Great Oaks Drive on RM 620, but the extension will give the neighborhood a back door to O'Connor Drive.
"The extension of O'Connor is really going to help circulation in the area, particularly with access to McNeil Drive," said David Bodenman, vice president of Highland Resources Inc., which developed Highland Horizon and owns land along the O'Connor extension.
Bodenman said Highland Resources did not have any current plans for its land along the new roadway, but he guessed the company would find a way to use it. He said he believes the road opens up that area to a great deal of possible development.
"I think it will be a boon to improving the property tax and the sales tax base," Bodenman said.
The catch, Bodenman and Boles both said, was that there are a number of difficulties developers have to overcome before any kind of development can come in.
"It's an attractive place to be and an attractive place for developers to get to, but can you develop practically in this area? It's a tough question," Boles said.
According to Boles, one of the biggest hurdles the O'Connor area has to clear is a lack of sewer and water service.
"You've got to be able to flush the toilet. If it's a restaurant, you've got to be able to flush the toilet a whole bunch," Boles said. "You've got to have water. And you don't just have to have water; you've got to have enough water to fight fire."
Most of the area on the south side of RM 620 near O'Connor is located within Austin's extraterritorial jurisdiction and lacks sewer and water service, which Austin Water has the right to provide. Highland Horizons, which is in the Brushy Creek Municipal Utility District, is an exception.
Boles pointed to nearby restaurant Mesa Rosa, which, until early this year, was forced to operate on a septic tank.
"It was always difficult," Mesa Rosa Office Manager Adrienne Kolly said. "For a restaurant that size, there was a lot of maintenance."
Kolly said there were never any issues with the tank, but that the restaurant had to constantly maintain the tank to keep it working properly. She said the restaurant now has sewer service from the Brushy Creek MUD.
Jason Hill, spokesman for Austin Water, said the utility company had no plans to extend service into that area soon, but that the company constantly works with developers to look for new service areas that make sense.
"Infrastructure costs a lot of money, and when we make those decisions and those kind of commitments—of course, with the approval of council—it is a bigger picture that we're looking at," Hill said. "Is it right for the city, is it right for the area, and is it right for the growth of Austin?"
Yet Bodenman said that until that question is answered, more situations like Mesa Rosa's were unlikely.
"Oh, absolutely. Until they solve that issue, I doubt there will be any development," Bodenman said.
Environmental issues, on the other hand, are essentially unsolvable for developers.
"You just kind of have to inspect each [site] foot-by-foot and see what happens. So what can and will show up here, you just have to see," Boles said.
Caves and endangered species are two of the primary mitigating environmental factors in the area that can hold back development.
Boles said that even on the perfect corner, karst features—cave openings—can prevent development. Much of the land around the extension sits over the Edwards Aquifier.
And sometimes those openings in the ground even have cave insects that can be on the endangered species list. In those cases, the land cannot be built on.
Birkman said it was those same cave insects that caused problems for the original plan to extend Wyoming Springs Drive instead of O'Connor, making it likely any development would have to contend with those same issues.
However, any development looking to plant its flag near the O'Connor extension would do well, almost by default, to start by talking to the Robinson family.
Robinson Ranch, as it is known, is a sprawling tract of more than 6,000 acres—much of it south of Toll 45—that is currently used primarily for limestone mining and cattle ranching. The land has been owned by the Robinson family for more than a century.
The land is governed by a planned unit development passed by the Austin City Council in 2004. The PUD essentially limits the land to mixed-use and transit-oriented developments with relatively high densities. It also calls for large open space areas, mostly greenbelts near bodies of water.
In other words, if and when the land develops, any developments have to be vetted not only by the Robinsons but also by the City of Austin's zoning department.
The Robinson family, for its part, does not appear eager to rush into any new developments.
Robin Skruhak, real estate specialist for Austin White Lime Company, the Robinsons' mining company, said the Robinson family is "not closed to anything," but right now has no new plans for the land.
Instead, she said, the family is concentrating on drilling new wells and making sure their cattle are taken care of in light of the new four-lane road going through their property.
Skruhak did say there has been some interest from developers on the property's corners, but declined to say what types of businesses had shown interest.
The Robinsons have in the past used their land for more civic-minded projects, such as St. David's Round Rock Medical Center.
"How is this going to develop commercially?" Boles said. "I don't think we'll know that for a while."
Schools & hospitals
The extension of O'Connor Drive will affect more than just commercial development in the area. There are several nearby elementary schools, a nearby high school as well as the planned site of a future high school, and a major hospital and medical center. Each one will be affected in some way by the change in traffic patterns.
Mike Petter, general manger for Brushy Creek Municipal Utility District, said he expects traffic on Great Oaks Drive, where there are several elementary schools, will slow some, providing better safety to that area.
Meanwhile, Round Rock ISD spokeswoman JoyLynn Occhiuzzi said the district did not yet know how the new road would affect its transportation routes.
"That's too far in the future for us to determine what impact that will have on our district. There're too many moving parts," she said.
Occhiuzzi also added that the district does not typically use toll roads to transport students, making routes along the O'Connor extension unlikely in the near future.
Dennis Fox, director of support services at St. David's Round Rock Medical Center, said the hospital was watching the new route closely as a way to improve the time it takes to get to the hospital, especially from North Austin.
He said the fact that it also gives ambulances a way to bypass the railroad on Round Rock Avenue near I-35 is likely the biggest impact of the extension.
"It's been a critical issue, one that we've asked the city and the county to look at several projects," Fox said.