Concordia Discord: Urban design to the rescue
How tall? How dense? And do we want it in our back yard?
In Austin, broad questions of land-use and planning policy typically get addressed, by default, through City Council reviews of controversial individual projects. That's a weak substitute for comprehensive urban planning, but doin' it at the dais is a time-honored tradition in Austin. A hefty list of contested development issues including many proposed projects whose scopes would significantly reshape their Austin neighborhoods made the agenda at last week's Feb. 15 City Council meeting (see "Pulling Our PUDs," at right).
Here's a spotlight on one project with important urban-planning implications: the future of the Concordia campus.
The Project: Redeveloping the Concordia University campus
The Backstory: The former Concordia Lutheran College is moving to a new campus in far North Austin and selling off its Central 22-acre campus (on the west side of I-35, north of 32nd) to developers, who plan to redevelop it as a dense mixed-use project. The Hancock Neighborhood Association wants less height and density, and a better-designed project, than the developer had proposed. Despite regular meetings since last summer, the neighborhoods had been unable to wring an acceptable project from the developer and its representatives, whom they characterized as unwilling to respond in meaningful and substantive ways to citizen concerns.
The Players: Developer: East Avenue IG LP (out-of-town investor group represented by Andy Sarwal, former general counsel for Grande Communications)
Developer's attorney: Richard Suttle, Armbrust & Brown
Neighborhood's attorney: Nikelle Meade, Brown McCarroll
Architect: Larry Speck, Page Southerland Page
At Issue: How tall and dense should it be? Council must vote on whether to grant the developer's request to rezone the property as high-density mixed-use and to create a planned unit development granting broad entitlements. The developer hopes to win council approval on March 8; its contract to buy the land runs out March 31. If that deal falls through, it could in turn jinx Concordia's acquisition and development of its new campus up north.
Council action: Vote deferred to March 1, with the public hearing kept open
The News: To break the deadlock in negotiations, ROMA Design Group has been brought in to work for at least two weeks with the parties to devise a stronger, clearer and hopefully, mutually acceptable redevelopment plan. At the urging of Brewster McCracken and other council members, the developer is footing the bill for ROMA to craft a better site design (working on behalf of both sides) and for legal counsel for the neighborhood association, to level the playing field. Meade says the developer "got a clear message from council that they couldn't just bring the project like it was" and win the rezoning case over neighborhood objections. So, as Suttle cracked at council, "We finally got some adult supervision to help us get this done." Meade reports that real progress is at last under way. "ROMA has been able to help the neighborhood representatives focus on what really impacts our lives, what really matters. And they're helping the developer see that in Austin, for a project of this magnitude, you have to get the community involved and on board, to get your project done."
The Devilish Details: The Hancock Neighborhood Plan (which predates the campus sale) calls for mixed-use development that is "neighborhood friendly, neighborhood scaled, and serves neighborhood needs." Instead, the developer wants to build a high, dense "mini-downtown" on a regional scale, with 300,000 square feet of offices (largely medical), 400,000 square feet of retail, a hotel, and about 1,400 shops and condos. The Hancock neighbors (and Eastwoods Neighborhood Association) have opposed the proposed 20-story buildings, high-rises directly across from homes, and the intense traffic the project will generate, likely to overflow onto neighborhood streets.
City staff members have recommended less dense mixed-use zoning as being more compatible with the neighborhood plan. The Design Commission has recommended that the redevelopment be "regarded as a major transit-oriented development," with future streetcar and commuter rail. It also noted, "The PUD as presented is lacking the kind of detailed information upon which substantive recommendations and agreements can be made," and continued, "While current PUD application requirements may have been met, urban infill proposals such as this one may require greater information and detail, and this should be considered by council in the future."
Commentary: Engaging a knowledgeable urban designer to help shape a better project on such a significant urban infill site is a positive and, dare we say it, rather painfully obvious solution here.
As Meade observed, "It is such a shame this didn't happen months ago." (Where were Larry Speck and PSP?) "The work ROMA has done in such a short time is phenomenal. We're thrilled! And the developer is seeing some real benefit, too." While urban designer Jana McCann had said that four to five months should be allowed to properly design a site of this size and complexity, ROMA is fast-tracking the project to tailor a workable site plan before council meets again on March 1.
The other key issue here is the perennial problem with PUDs. While PUD zoning is intended to result in better, more holistically conceived projects on large sites, council is too often granting them without requiring sufficient detail to ensure a quality project. (Another prime example is the just-granted Fairfield PUD at the Hyatt on Town Lake, where the developer of the adjoining AquaTerra condominiums, Crescent Resources, footed the bill at the 11th hour for its own architect, Rhode:Hurt, to draw up a better PUD site plan.) ROMA's McCann and team now are working to fill in many of the blanks that had troubled neighbors for the Concordia site. Within the PUD, they're drawing internal roadways, laying out city blocks, siting smaller buildings adjacent to homes, and otherwise addressing specific issues of concern to the Hancock neighbors.
If the effort ends well, it could provide a useful new model for battle-beleaguered Austin. Clearly, something needs to change. With large-scale developments threatening to alter neighborhoods all over town, the city needs a more sophisticated approach to get the best possible projects on sites like Concordia, of significant size and sensitivity. Why not make it standard policy to provide or at least require of the developer an experienced urban designer to facilitate superior solutions for all such key sites? Engage experts early on to ensure that big projects reflect not only neighborhood plans and preferences but the city's design guidelines and sustainability goals. (Far more productive than expecting win-win solutions from lawyers, and far more fair and reasonable than putting the job on the backs of untutored volunteers at neighborhood associations.) Many other large sites, such as Northcross Mall, cry out for intervention by a top-notch urban designer. In adopting such a policy, the city would be executing its public responsibility to see that major developments on key sites are optimally conceived and executed. Good urban design has become an indispensable part of the infrastructure now necessary for Austin to grow, while remaining a great and livable city.
Noted Meade, "We're a special community, so these companies that want to do business in Austin need to give us equally special projects, just as they do in other cities that require them to think outside the box."