Preparing for Takeoff
Plans under way for major redo of Airport Boulevard and Highland Mall
In a series of presentations beginning late last month, the city and its prospective partners unveiled tentative plans for redeveloping Highland Mall and upper Airport Boulevard to a largely appreciative public. A few highlights: Austin Community College will keep the mall buildings as a campus facility, while RedLeaf Properties will master-plan the rest of the Highland site as a dense "new urban" community. Meanwhile, just south of Highway 290, the city is hoping to create a Transit-Oriented Development out of the current Leif Johnson Ford tract and the blocks south – connecting with a new Travis County complex planned for across the street, beside the current county offices at the old Chair King location at 53rd Street.
The projects are parts of a complex city initiative, led by Council Member Chris Riley, to upzone much of the Airport corridor – all the way from Lamar Boulevard in the north to the I-35/Mueller area initially and, in the longer term, to the Highway 183 intersection near the Colorado River. Along the way, planners and city officials hope to redefine zoning itself: using the principles of form-based code zoning to express the city's interest in how buildings are designed and function, rather than what sorts of specific uses they're put to.
Liveable City hosted a presentation of the Highland Mall redevelopment plan Monday, Sept. 26. Plans for Airport Boulevard were presented at the Imagine Austin Release Party at the Carver Museum and Cultural Center on Saturday, Oct. 1, and again on Oct. 3 at Our Lady's Maronite Catholic Church.
Look for more details arriving soon at a City Council near you.
Upper Airport Boulevard Redevelopment Initiative
It's a complicated process involving two other city planning initiatives – the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan and the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan (www.imagineaustin.net) – plus Austin Community College's plan for a campus at a new urban Highland Mall development and Travis County's 30-year North Campus Master Plan, plus a fairly heavy emphasis on Capital Metro's Red Line, which would presumably link into a more robust citywide light-rail system by the time all this is built out.
Planning is led by the city of Austin's Urban Design Division, part of the Planning and Development Review Department. A team of consultants led by Gateway Planning Group – an award-winning urban design firm based in Fort Worth, with Scott Polikov as president – has been hired to help develop the vision and tools, and to handle communications/engagement/public relations.
The upper Airport Boulevard plan in-cludes four main goals:
• "Establish a Vision for redevelopment"
• "Set the Stage for Reinvestment in Public Infrastructure and Economic Development"
• "Create More Transportation Options"
• "Develop a Model for Other Corridors"
That last one is key; if this planning process works, city officials and others hope it can be applied to other corridors and neighborhoods as well.
And they're working on a fairly quick timeline. Having completed the initial assessment – documenting everything that's on the ground and in the existing plans and identifying all the stakeholders – the initiative is currently in the "Vision" stage, elaborating on all the drawings you see here. They'll design and plan over the winter and put it into code next summer; action (the actual financing, investment, and eventual construction) can begin in about a year.
Also figuring into the planning is the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, run by the city's Transportation Department (www.austinstrategicmobility.com). It's looking at Airport Boulevard, all the way down to Highway 183, as one of five main mobility corridors where it wants to "increase mobility and accessibility for drivers, pedestrians, bicycles and transit users." The others: North Lamar and Burnet Road, FM 969 (East MLK), East Riverside, and I-35. While the Transportation Department people are happy to leave most of the work in this section to the Upper Airport planners, one initiative that had people's ears perking up at the Oct. 3 meeting was a commitment to a continuous bike route the length of Airport Boulevard, from the Crestview TOD at Lamar all the way down to the Highway 183-Seventh Street intersection.
• The Greater Highland Mall Redevelopment includes properties south to Highway 290. Apart from the mall tract itself, which will be developed by ACC and RedLeaf, the major change will be a new transit center district on the west side of Airport. With Capital Metro's sign-off, the current rail stop would be relocated directly opposite the main campus entrance with a treelined promenade that might resemble UT's West Mall, a totally redesigned street crossing at Airport to match, and the light industrial neighborhood behind the station upzoned to encourage denser mixed uses. A potential bonus: Officials are exploring a land swap with Greyhound that could give bus passengers much-improved transit options.
• The Fiskville TOD/Travis County North Campus area could vie with Highland Mall for being the most radically transformed stretch of the corridor. With Travis County's busy North Campus growing on the east side of the street and a brand-new rail stop on the west side next to the acres of auto dealers just aching to be redeveloped into "urban village density," this area might well be unrecognizable by the end of this decade.
Elsewhere up and down the corridor, with no public-sector drivers, the planning gets a bit more speculative and dependent on the vagaries of the economy and the development industry:
• The Independent Business Area could see a lot of streetscape improvements – back-in angled parking, functioning sidewalks – and upzoning based on the form-based code model, so that any new construction is of a denser, more pedestrian-friendly style. But how soon that new construction might happen the planners ultimately have little control over. Moreover, the current mix of businesses here is great – Tamale House, I Luv Video, Mrs. Johnson's Bakery, House Pizzeria – and no one expressly wants to do anything to change that. Yet how do you make neighborhood improvements that are going to raise property values without hurting low-rent businesses? Well, call it the paradox of gentrification.
• The Ridgetop Neighborhood, encompassing the entire triangle between that Independent Business Area and I-35, seems likely to go a lot more upscale, but as it's almost all single-family residential, there's little that planning can affect directly; the team is concentrating on ensuring good bike and pedestrian access routes and appropriate transition zones behind the commercial corridor on Airport.
• In the Lamar/Justin TOD Transition zone with the Crestview TOD just up the road at Lamar, planners are focusing on the several blocks south of the industrial zone along the railroad tracks and on Guadalupe north of Airport. But again, with all the existing single-family housing stock, it's hard to foresee tangible changes in the neighborhood on any specific timetable.
• The envisioned Upper Airport Gateway feature is even more speculative: little more than a wish at this point, or just an observation, if you will, that the triangle of land between 46th, Airport, and I-35 could hold so much more than a brake shop, a convenience store, and a bunch of empty pads where Morgan Buildings and Spas used to be. Indeed it could, but how soon something might be built there or what shape it might take is anybody's guess at this point. The planners can set the table, but they can't make the development happen.
As Alan Holt, Airport project co-manager from the city's Urban Design Division, told the assembled masses at the Oct. 3 presentation, "Some of these elements you see here may be on the ground within two years; some of it may not be there 20 years from now."
Airport Boulevard Advisory Group
Austin City Council appointed this advisory group to provide input and guidance to the initiative. Members include Airport Boulevard businesses and property owners, institutional partners, and area neighbors, as well as representatives of city- and regionwide interest groups.
Roger El Khoury – Travis County
Bill Mullane – Austin Community College
Bart Whatley – Austin Design Commission
Tina Bui – Austin Planning Commission
Katrina Daniel – Highland Neighborhood Association
Martha Koock Ward – Ridgetop Neighborhood Association
Sebastian Wren – Northfield Neighborhood Association
Bryan Hardeman – Mercedes-Benz of Austin
Carol Huntsberger – Quality Seafood
David Jabour – Twin Liquors
Vanessa Gelvin – Habitat Suites
Alan Miller – Workforce Solutions
Scott Talkington – House Pizzeria
Peter Cesaro – Real Estate Council of Austin/Graves, Dougherty, Hearon & Moody
Stephen Oliver – American Institute of Architects, Austin
Ron Thrower – Congress for the New Urbanism Central Texas Chapter
Larry Sunderland – Congress for the New Urbanism Central Texas Chapter
Greg Weaver – Urban Land Institute Austin/Catellus
Greater Highland Mall Redevelopment
RedLeaf Properties principal Matt Whelan, who was with Catellus during the planning phases of the Mueller development, described master-planning as a three-step process:
• Acquire the land.
• Establish a long-term vision for the tract.
• Execute the vision.
He noted that his Highland project has just now gotten to the point where Mueller planning began because the city already owned all the land there. Highland, on the other hand, had a complicated patchwork of ownership: four separately platted lots plus several long-term leases. It's all now owned by ACC, however – 80 acres in all counting the mall buildings and parking lots. And, Whelan said, the college took most everyone by surprise by deciding that it wanted to keep the existing mall buildings for its campus use. There are still some long-term leases on the central mall building – the smaller stores and the food court – and how those will play out remains to be seen, but the three anchor-tenant buildings on the corners (about 200,000 square feet each) are ACC's free and clear, and the college may start working toward remodeling those for classroom use within the next 18 months.
Other than that and a proposed street grid, the rest of the plan is largely unspecified red shading for mixed-use development of some sort: Several conceptual drawings illustrate what could be built in certain locations, but RedLeaf stresses that its plans are still quite preliminary.
Still, if ACC is going to latch onto the Airport redevelopment timeline, it needs to move quickly. The zoning for all that land is supposed to be in place next summer – and a lot of pieces have to fall into place before it gets to that stage.
As a side note: All of these plans live somewhat in the shadow of the massive work still ongoing down the road at Mueller. But in one sense, at least, both the Highland and Fiskville TODs have a planning advantage over the Mueller development in that neither of them needs the (tax-generating) big-box development that was the first thing to hit the ground at Mueller, long before the more attractive mixed-use infill started being built. In ACC and Travis County, the Highland and Fiskville TODs have anchor tenants built in from the start – and they're major employers and people magnets that will contribute to the pedestrian development, and the development of small business in the area, rather than car-dependent big retailers.
Travis County North Campus
The Travis County North Campus houses “[s]elected general government and other functions with high visitor traffic,” including the main Tax Office, the County Clerk (Elections and Recording Divisions), Sheriff’s Central Command, County Fire Marshal, Emergency Services, and more. A 2010 North Campus Master Plan (www.co.travis.tx.us/facilities) calls for a three-phase development, with the first phase being the construction by 2020 of a four-story office building at the corner of Airport Boulevard and 53½ Street – of about 220,000 square feet – plus a parking garage in back, about where the old Chair King store is now. (By 2040, the North Campus would have more than a half-million square feet of new office space, plus parking garages for some 1,674 cars – if we’re not all using jet packs by then.)
One of the touted innovations of the Upper Airport Boulevard planning process is that the zoning is to be written as form-based code instead of traditional zoning code. Here's an overview of what that means, loosely adapted from the Form-Based Codes Institute (www.formbasedcodes.org):
Form-based codes use physical form rather than separation of uses as the organizing principle for the code – in contrast to conventional zoning, which focuses on the micromanagement and segregation of land uses, to the neglect of an integrated built form. Not to be confused with design guidelines or general statements of policy, form-based codes are regulations, not mere guidelines, adopted into city law.
Form-based codes address the relationship between building facades and the public realm, the form and mass of buildings in relation to one another, and the scale and types of streets and blocks. The regulations and standards in form-based codes are presented in words, diagrams, and other visuals. They are keyed to a regulating plan that designates the appropriate form and scale of development rather than mere distinctions in land-use types.
Form-based codes commonly include: a regulating plan designating the locations where different building form standards apply; public space standards for sidewalks, travel lanes, on-street parking, and street trees and furniture; building form standards controlling the configuration, features, and functions of buildings; a clearly defined application and project review process; and often architectural, landscaping, and signage standards, as well as environmental resource standards.
For a look at the development of this process, see "Reinventing Airport Boulevard," Jan. 8, 2010.
Airport Boulevard, Highland Mall, Austin Community College, RedLeaf Properties, Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, Transportation Department, Urban Design Division, Capital Metro, Matt Whelan