Candidate Positions and the Burnet Corridor Plan

The City recently began work on a land use plan for Burnet Rd and Anderson Ln. Growth is already happening – over 250 acres along the corridors were previously zoned for new housing, representing long-term capacity for 15,000- 20,000 future residents. The planning process may lead to changes in this capacity, in the type of housing allowed, and in the infrastructure planned to support it. The results will greatly influence the physical and cultural character of the Burnet Rd area in the coming decades.

Most candidates support some variation of “responsible growth,” meaning that some growth along corridors is to be expected but it should be done in a way to protect quality of life. All candidates say they support local businesses on the corridor. What these positions mean in practice varies, as does a candidate’s preference for investing in transit-oriented and walkable infrastructure that lowers risk of a long-term congestion melt-down, versus tightening the City’s belt to improve cost of living for today’s residents.

Boyt, who identifies housing affordability as the city’s biggest crisis, is most open to introducing new housing of all types – apartments, condos, four-plexes, duplexes, townhomes, granny flats. “Affordability is all about supply.” He acknowledges there could be short-term options like tax or rate relief, but notes that Council reviews the budget every year for such cuts. Only increased housing, coupled with less car dependency, can improve long-term affordability in the urban core.

The key for Boyt is getting a range of housing types in each neighborhood, at different price points for different needs. Boyt agrees housing density should taper off as one moves away from transit. But he’d accept more housing at locations farther from transit than most other candidates – say 4-story apartments a full five minute walk from a bus stop. Boyt, along with Zone, Pool and Salazar, would prioritize a finely-meshed network of pedestrian features for transit-oriented places – sidewalks, creek paths, bike lanes, parks and gathering spaces, all drawing people on foot or bike to transit. That said, Boyt while on the 2012 bond advisory task force voted to cut PARD’s modest bond request for new urban parks, while increasing funds for new water quality conservation land on the edge of town. Boyt said the committee had to make tough choices, and directed most urban bond funding towards improvements of existing parks.

The other candidates are more cautious about new housing.

English says he supports protecting family-friendly neighborhoods. “I think that the character of the city should include a flavor that protects existing family homes,” English says, “and encourages additional neighborhoods that are family-oriented and single-family oriented.” He proposes to add most new family-friendly housing in new transit-oriented centers in northeast Austin. Along Burnet, English favors protecting existing single family housing, while adding more capacity for VMU-style apartments at certain locations, for instance at the Ross Dress for Less.

English is sanguine about the relationship of dense housing to transit. “Bus stops can be moved. A bus stop’s five blocks down the street – we’ll move the bus stop.” This approach may preclude deep investment in pedestrian infrastructure. Cost of open space in expensive places like along a commercial street is also a concern. “There’s a fairly widespread movement to make Austin more affordable, and that goes back to what is the city spending.” English says North Central Austin does need more pocket parks, but cost should influence their location – the City should look for abandoned or condemned properties throughout the wider area. English says he would spend more on other types of transportation options, including rail and roads. He says he is open to reconsidering his approach if a strong case can be made for congestion reduction.

Ingalls, who says his family was priced out of an apartment on the rapidly redeveloping E Riverside corridor, is particularly critical of VMU-style luxury apartments, which are overwhelmingly 1-BR rentals that exclude families while concentrating high-end residents who skew upward the price of services. Ingalls too would protect single family cores, but also look for ways to ensure that a minimum number of units in larger residential projects are sized to support families. He would resist spending more on rail or pedestrian infrastructure until the City pays down more of its bond debt.

Paver’s land use strategy might best be described as protecting single family cores from rapid change. One or two duplexes is probably ok, whereas “bulldozing four houses and putting up six duplexes? Probably not.” Paver says he personally would prefer not to have such housing, but “I don’t see it as an all-or-nothing thing. We need places for people to live.” For Paver, the type of housing has an impact on affordability and on the ability of families to remain in the urban core. “If [a family] can’t live in a dense one-bedroom community that is going up in a lot of places, then they’re pushed out of the school district.”

Paver is ok with zoning more VMU at certain places, like the Ross Dress for Less property, even if they’re not as close to a transit station. But he seems to be looking for a longer-term strategy. “Until we have an idea about how we want to control these types of developments in certain areas, so that they don’t create congestion, I don’t think you can be against everything.” On open space, Paver says the City should look for creative funding solutions that don’t put added tax pressure on existing residents. “We obviously don’t have a lot of money for parks. We obviously need parks. But finding other ways to finance them is probably the best route.” In weighing car- versus non-car transportation options, Paver leans towards car solutions that benefit existing residents. For instance, he would consider widening Burnet south of 2222 to add a turn lane, if that were feasible.

Neighborhood plans are Pool’s point of departure for corridor planning. “Commercial expansion must follow plans painstakingly written with neighborhoods, often over the course of years.” Pool herself sees a need for more diverse housing near corridors like duplexes or fourplexes, especially if code enforcement can be tightened. But such decisions need community support, and communities don’t trust the City. Pool said she doesn’t have a quick answer to the trust deficit, but following neighborhood plans would be a good start. Regarding the appropriateness of VMU-style development, Pool said planners often use 5-minute walking distance as a rule of thumb for transit support, but that in practice other things like pedestrian amenities and transit frequency affect whether nearby residents will forego driving. “This is an area where I’m interested about the collaboration between the City and CapMetro,” as far as station alignment, bus frequency, and pedestrian amenities like plazas, she said. To keep a lid on congestion, Pool said the City has to invest in sidewalks, bike lanes and public space near transit. But there should be cost-sharing, for instance with CapMetro.

Salazar specifically used the term ‘responsible growth’ and supports new housing along corridors, but not too far into single family areas. Protecting existing residents is his top priority. He is looking in particular for ways to improve cost of living for Austin’s most vulnerable residents. As such, he would defer expensive rail investments and greatly expand bus service. He would seek more ways to incentivize affordable housing.

Zone also cites quality of life for existing residents as a top priority. She says Austin needs more kinds of housing, “but that doesn’t mean we have to demolish the single family housing. We don’t need to – we can incorporate both.” Some duplexes and even the odd four-plex is ok in single-family areas. Eight- to sixteen-plexes would go on a corridor like Burnet in accordance with the site’s ability to support utilities like storm water and waste water, and nearer to rapid transit so as to reduce congestion risk. Zone said infrastructure capacity is a key planning consideration. “Burnet doesn’t have the infrastructure to support many four and five story apartments.”

At a location like the Burnet Dress for Less property, which is a quarter mile from the nearest rapid bus stop, Zone might support two or three stories – about half the density requested by a recent developer. Conversely, she would use density bonuses at better-supported locations to get more affordable housing. Zone also champions open space in transit areas to boost community and reduce car trips. “The lack of gathering spaces concerns me,” said Zone. “Austin shouldn’t be building golf courses – Austin should be using the money where there’s families, integrating parks where they’re going to be used,” near denser development.