By Steven Zettner, editor
City Council on Thursday approved a resolution directing planning staff to proceed with land use planning of the Burnet Rd corridor from 45th to 183, and of Anderson Ln from Mopac to the CapMetro Red Line track. The vote was 7-0, in support of a substitute version from Council Member Laura Morrison that identified specific issues that staff should account for during the planning.
The resolution also approved a neighborhood plan process for the North Shoal Creek planning area. Staff will present a different resolution in August proposing neighborhood plans or updates for other area neighborhoods. Council members acknowledged that some neighborhoods may not want neighborhood planning, and seemed disinclined to require it. Allandale Neighborhood Association had previously voted to oppose such a plan. Allandale also opposed the corridor planning, prior to completion of CodeNext.
Staff on Thursday June 5 held a public meeting to explain the proposed 12-18 month planning process for the North Central Austin area.
Many residents were confused about the distinction between ‘neighborhood plans’ and ‘corridor plans’. In the past, neighborhood plans covered both the interior and edges of neighborhoods, including areas along the major streets. They defined priorities for capital projects or improvements, and changed zoning.
The North Central Austin plans are different in that 1) planning of neighborhood interiors would be part of ‘neighborhood plans’, whereas planning along major commercial streets would be part of ‘corridor plans’, and 2) no zoning changes would occur yet. Rather, staff would define ‘character zones’ that provide guidance on what the future zoning should be, without actually implementing new zoning rules. The new rules would be added after they are adopted upon completion of the CodeNext zoning rewrite process, presumably in 2016.
City planner Jennifer Todd said staff proposed to break the planning up into neighborhood plans and corridor plans so that there could be more focus on corridors as holistic systems. Past efforts to plan corridors piecemeal resulted in poor alignment of transportation and land use. Stakeholders on one side of a corridor were left out from planning on the other side.
What Happens Now?
Staff will begin analysis of the two corridors, with public input meetings to begin sometime in the fall. Outreach will continue to the Rosedale, Brentwood, Crestview, Wooten and Highland neighborhoods to determine their interest in doing neighborhood plans or updates.
Staff will also be determining the width of the corridor plan areas. This is likely to be a contentious issue, since many neighborhoods fear that any upzoning of single family housing to duplexes, fourplexes or rowhouses will unleash an ongoing wave of upzonings deeper into the neighborhood.
Staff, stakeholders and the future Council will need to address the following land use and transportation questions:
- Where is future housing appropriate, and where not? In particular, what is the right trade-off between adding new housing to address the city’s affordability crisis, vs. adding new car traffic on the corridors and residential streets? How far from transit should upzoning be allowed? What rules would govern changes to the boundaries of ‘transition zone housing’ in the future? On Anderson Ln, do we even know where the future transit stations would be that should anchor transit-oriented development?
- What kind of housing will be zoned? What proportion of the housing mix will be 1-BR or micro-units that exclude families, and what impact will that housing mix have on the community’s demographics and culture? Even if no changes occur and development continues on properties already zoned for VMU, North Central Austin’s housing mix over 30 years could change from 20% 1-BR units to 50% 1-BR units – not much different than Downtown’s current 60% ratio. Families could be locked out of much of the neighborhood. That’s a risk because our area’s vibrancy and even its economy rely on a healthy balance of young adults, families and seniors.
- How will future housing affect current residents? Will impervious cover increase, leading to higher flash flood risk? Will the area’s tree canopy decrease? Will streets become less safe for pedestrians and cyclists due to on-street parking? Would duplexes or four-plexes suffer poor maintenance, as often happens today due to poor code enforcement and off-site owners? Will upzoning raise taxes for long-term residents, accelerating gentrification? Will staff attempt to model such impacts?
- How pedestrian-friendly will the corridors be? The city’s traffic strategy involves getting people out of their cars. Can staff find rules and resources to add the plazas, pocket parks, trails and other pedestrian amenities that would make transit-oriented zones a safe and pleasant walking experience for people of all ages? Can staff plan and enforce smaller block sizes for potentially dense areas like along Anderson Ln? Existing mechanisms aren’t up to the task. On Burnet and Anderson, this issue is especially important because the richness of transit station amenities is one of the few ways to improve overall transit quality and ridership.
The real question, though, is whether the City of Austin can deliver on the transit-oriented walkable vision defined in Imagine Austin. Staff is asking citizens to put their faith in a vision that will depend heavily on the as-yet-unknown results of CodeNext, plus a lot more public investment than previously committed. Crestview Station without a park? It’s not like the City has a lot of street cred in this part of town. Expect the planning process to be bumpy.