Infill On Trial

What's the Verdict on the Latest Central-City Boom?

by Mike Clark-Madison
photos by Kenny Braun

The new digs of ad agency GSD&M on Sixth Street, one block east of Lamar, reflect a trend that may revitalize downtown more than any shopping mall ever could.

Welcome to Austin Tomorrow. That is, Austin today. Which was supposed to be Austin yesterday. Austin Tomorrow, you may know, is the city's official comprehensive growth and land-use plan, adopted in the mid-1970s, still in effect despite several efforts to replace it, and nearing the end of its intended lifespan. Now, looking around at your city, "planned" is likely not the first adjective that springs to mind. Most of the many, many nostrums and prescriptions of Austin Tomorrow were routinely and shamelessly ignored during two decades of Boom and Bust and ReBoom. As a result, many Austinites -- especially the ones who build things for a living -- tend to dismiss Austin Tomorrow as a joke, and the entire concept of comprehensive planning as a fool's game at best, a violation of sacred rights at worst.

Even supporters of a well-designed and livable city have learned to avoid what Statesman columnist Susan Richardson last April termed "the M word" -- master-plan. "Austin seems to like plans that go nowhere," Richardson recounted. "What we have instead is just what the Austin Tomorrow plan wanted to avoid -- a city that mushrooms along U.S. 183 and... over the Edwards Aquifer.... [Government] policies unevenly promote sprawl, rather than redirect growth to the inner city."

This implies, accurately, that the goals of Austin Tomorrow, while never practiced, have never ceased to be preached. When the plan's citizen-authors divided the city into priority growth areas, they made central-city rehab No. 1 and put westward sprawl at the bottom -- even proposing building moratoria in much of what is today MUDville -- and we all know how well that promise was kept. Yet today central-city rehab is, or at least seems to be, the leading edge of the ReBoom. Our fair city -- which has been irrevocably transformed, politically, culturally and demographically, since 1977 -- has lost patience with sprawl on the fringe and decay in the heart of town. Austinites old and new now clamor to work, sleep, eat, shop and party here, rather than in the next county. We want inner-city land to be used more pleasantly and productively than for surface parking lots, obsolete airports, dormant state property, and crumbling disasters of urban renewal. And we want to drive a stake through the heart of the unsustainable sprawl economy that has laid waste to both town and country.

In short, we want infill and we want it now. While not synonymous with central-city redevelopment -- which can take forms other than new construction on abandoned in-town sites, a stricter definition of "infill" -- the I word has replaced the M word as the mantra among Central Austin's residents and neighbors, planners and defenders. But is what we're seeing the answer to 20 years of prayer? We have a lot of sticks in the air and proposals on the drawing board, but we still don't yet have a plan -- tying these projects together and pointing toward future ones -- that packs any more heat with the powers-that-be than did Austin Tomorrow.

And as we address, ad hoc, the issues raised by each high-profile central-city infill project, we realize how many problems are still begging to be solved. Such as:

What level of density will we accept in Central Austin neighborhoods? Will everybody need, demand, or deserve a place to live in the heart of the city? What kind of businesses do we want and need downtown, and do we want them to abandon the fringe bastions they hold now? How much of what has survived in the central city, both physical and social, is worth preserving, and how gracefully can the rest be transformed? Can we create a climate, let alone a Land Development Code, where the "brownfields" of the inner city are routinely more attractive to developers than the "greenfields" of the perimeter? And how do we put all these elements together into communities that actually improve on the status quo?

Ideally, it wouldn't just be us asking these questions -- it would be the decision-makers within government and in the real-estate community. We can look askance at oft-touted progressive-planning models like Portland, where city planning is a pastime and "sustainability" an unquestioned dogma, as the products of values that Austin would never wear well. But throughout the globe, even in the darkest corners of the sprawl economy, the jig is clearly up for the kind of development that's defined Austin for the last quarter century. Though Austin is a nationally recognized nerve center for the sustainability movement (such as green building, organic farming, alternative transportation, and compact city planning), as far as public policy and the local market are concerned, we are still well behind the curve. Today's infill boom offers us hope that brave, or canny, or even flaky developers may teach by example what Austin Tomorrow failed to instill as ideology. As from corner to corner we put sprawl on trial, we inevitably put infill on trial as well.

Exhibit A: Sixth & Lamar

When we say "central city," we usually mean the more central, the better, and downtown has for decades -- even before Austin Tomorrow -- been the horse that has dragged Austin's planning wagon. In plan after plan, delivered by more consultants than Crayola has colors, the downtown vision has included not just commercial, but retail, residential, and public components. The likeliest, and occasionally the overtly cited, model is something like downtown San Francisco (the triangle between Van Ness, Market, and the bayfront) -- home to all of Fog City's skyscrapers, all its destination retail, many of its entertainment and tourist attractions, most of its public institutions and more than a fifth of its residents. (And more than a few downtown-renewal consultants.)

This would indeed be dandy, but most cities, Austin included, are having a hard enough time keeping their commercial sector from avoiding the central business district with its expense, traffic congestion, and strict zoning regulations. Which makes the scene today around Sixth & Lamar worthy of attention. The most visible recent construction there is retail -- the Whole Foods/Book People complex -- and the most anticipated draft project is residential -- the Perry Lorenz/Robert Barnstone condo development on the southeast corner of Ninth & Lamar, across from the old Whole Foods site. But the most important infill project may be purely commercial -- GSD&M's new Idea City on Sixth Street, one block east of Lamar. When's the last time we saw a major Austin firm relocate its headquarters, and 300 or so employees, from the fringe (Loop 360 South) to the inner city? Combine GSD&M with the top-floor home-office staff of Whole Foods Market, also formerly ensconced out Westlake way, and you have signs of a trend that -- if it takes off -- promises to revitalize downtown more than any shopping mall ever could.

The new digs of Austin's largest advertising agency embody both the practicalities and idiosyncrasies of the infill boom. "It was a difficult project, but I think we were pretty fortunate with GSD&M," says Milton Heim of RTG/Partners, the architects behind Idea City. "Our client was well-suited to go down there; they wanted a `downtown' image because they'd been in the suburbs for so long."

Undeniably, GSD&M's demeanor as a creative hotbed fits in well at this Central Austin crossroads next to Whole Foods and Waterloo Records, just as Idea City's loud, proud, and angular facade blends well with this noisy, congested, but nonetheless fairly happy corner, which will soon feature a multiplex movie theatre as well. (Compare this corner to, say, U.S. 183 and Spicewood Springs Road, which cannot help but depress.) But in a less cultural vein, GSD&M is exactly the sort of soft industry that could brainstorm Downtown as easily as in an ETJ office park. Such is the main plank of the downtown strategy in San Jose, which -- left with Austinesque office-space vacancies and unbuilt dead zones throughout its skyscraper strip -- started seducing high-tech firms from Silicon Valley, like Adobe Systems, with the same sort of abatement packages we use to move companies like Samsung into the 'burbs.

"There's other clients, mostly in the service and high-tech sectors, for whom we could have done the same thing," says Heim. "The acreage we used up isn't very intense given the number of people. You could find others, but then you get into real economic issues -- building parking garages, the cost of the land itself, the impact of traffic generation, which for our project was much less than it was for Whole Foods. Many companies will quickly conclude that the perimeter is cheaper.

"And zoning is an issue too -- the city's going to have to be more flexible in the future," Heim continues. "But GSD&M adds some critical mass with 300 people moving in; I think it's made it easier for the next person, and I hope the city looks at it that way. And I hope the banks that need to finance this development look at it that way, too."

Exhibit B: Jefferson on Congress

Ah yes, those pesky banks. We all know how, after their libertine days during the boom and the financial meltdown that followed, Texas lenders drew their credit criteria tighter than a clamshell, unwilling to touch projects with even a whiff of risk. No one knows this better than Austin's renters, who watched in undisguised horror as apartment construction came to a standstill despite massive increases in demand, while existing properties -- including much of the central city's rental stock -- decayed at warp speed, trapped in deferred-maintenance hell while locked up in bankruptcy court, RTC inventories or the ever-revolving portfolios of banks that bore different names every fortnight.

Now that the financial industry has settled down a bit, with investors and large depositors in these banks itching for a place to park their money during an interest-rate drought, apartment construction has resumed in Austin at a healthy pace. Much of this building is still on the perimeter, ostensibly cheaper and less dangerous, and certainly less troublesome, than residential infill. But several highly visible projects aim to pry open the inner-city market by combining key locations with deep developer pockets.

Few pockets are deeper than those of JPI, the Las Colinas-based proprietor of megacomplexes throughout the Sunbelt, including several in Northwest Austin, and routinely among the top five builders in America of new apartment units. When JPI gave birth to Jefferson on Congress, south of the river across from the School for the Deaf, the door leading to the day when infill projects are routine swung open a little wider.

Jefferson on Congress luxury apartments

More so than multi-family developments like The Gables, next to Central Market, or the Lorenz/Barnstone project at Ninth & Lamar, Jefferson on Congress -- as a beachhead of a major corporate builder, presumably unswayed by the romance of local planning vision -- gives grounds for real faith that living in Central Austin is not limited to members of the venerable central-city subculture. (This is, of course, the same subculture, of which the Chronicle is the putative house organ, that has kept the visions of Austin Tomorrow on life support throughout two decades of abuse. But if the prog-left-hippie-artist-student 'n' faculty scene were strong enough to keep Central Austin alive and healthy, there would be no need for, or talk of, an infill boom.)

Presumably, the current and future tenants of projects like Jefferson on Congress will come from a pool of citizens immune to, or unable to afford, the charms of Central Austin's established neighborhoods, where such amenities as a sound roof and foundation, central air and heat, and freedom from vermin are often not standard features. In a part of town where even crappy hovels are scarce and dear, JPI is banking that its lux interiors and all mod cons will bring into the core folks who'd otherwise be living on the fringe. It probably has no choice in this strategy, since in Austin as in most of the country, renting at upscale developments like Jefferson, regardless of their location, is more expensive than buying in a subdivision.

JPI marketers, quoted in 1995 in American Demographics, note that today's apartment business throughout the country "is an amenities battle and a service battle. It's tough out there." The AD article notes that, due to the increased cost of building nationwide, developers of new apartment complexes have to target the upper 25% of the renter market to have any hope of profit. This fortunate fourth has traditionally been ill-represented in Austin, where the rental market has mostly been dominated by students and low-wage government workers, and where the baby-boomers with money are more prone to have kids, and thus homes, earlier than elsewhere. The ReBoom, however, has done much to change that tune. Even if high-techers are induced to relocate from California or New York or Massachusetts by Austin's more realistic potential for home ownership, they have to live somewhere in the meantime. And for people used to hour-long commutes into town, living in the center and driving out to their chip plant on the fringe makes no less sense than being trapped by traffic in Cedar Park.

But of course, Jefferson is selling more than just this kind of logic, even if they aren't selling the traditional Central Austin subculture. The billboards read "Downtown Living with an Uptown Attitude," and there's nowhere else in town where you can live in an apartment complex with a health club and concierge service and walk to the Continental Club. If indeed Jefferson on Congress becomes a template for the Central Austin multi-family project of the future, it can't help but rewrite our definition of who, as well as what, makes up our city within a city.

The Gables condos next to Central Market

Exhibit C: Central Park

Even if Old Central Austin isn't big and strong enough to support a healthy urban core, it's plenty big enough to support Central Market, which over the past three years has become an Austin landmark with far more semiotic power than most any grocery store anywhere. Having succeeded -- at least, according to recent market-research reports, in public perception -- in whipping Whole Foods' hippie ass on the retail front, the Central Park development anchored by Not-Just-Any-Old-HEB is now expanding its scope to include The Gables and other building blocks of a multi-use community.

The 38th Street PUD, known to laypeople as Central Park, is doubtlessly the granddaddy of the current infill boom, having been proposed in 1991 when no one in their right mind wanted to drop money in what all hands thought was a dying central city. Had the PUD not been proposed for public land -- the underused corner of MHMR's Austin State Hospital facility -- it would never have happened, period. If a private lender had been interested, they would likely have been scared away by the then-substantial objections of local neighborhood associations and their members, who were displeased with the PUD from the git-go and downright inflamed when a destination-retail magnet erupted within its original master plan. Today, of course, folks in Hyde Park and Rosedale are noticeably less aggrieved by Central Park, since they shop at Central Market as much as anyone, if not more, even though it has indeed generated every bit as much traffic as they feared, and clearly changed the character of the area.

It's easy to read the initial objections to the 38th Street PUD as exactly the sort of NIMBY nay-saying pointed to by the real-estate industry and its political lapdogs as an impediment to infill. If you build on a greenfield in the perimeter, the neighbors -- many of whom have four legs, or six legs, or wings -- don't object, unless they're on the endangered-species list and have public defenders to object for them. And it is undoubtedly true that, in most cases, neighborhoods will eventually become accustomed to whatever is dumped upon them, just as the Inner East Side has gotten used to Disch-Falk Field and the Erwin Center, just as the other side of Hyde Park -- after much now-forgotten strife -- got used to Hancock Center. (See "Corner to Corner," p.26, for more on Hancock then and now.)

But what's happened with Central Park, and indeed what happened to Hancock, is more than just grudging tolerance. These projects have been adopted by their neighborhoods as enhancements and landmarks. "We've been very lucky in the case of Central Market," says Ben Heimsath, who in addition to being a pivotal figure in the compact-city public-policy debate is a past president of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association. "HEB and C.P. Oles [the developer] did an excellent job putting the commercial strip together -- even though it deviated from the master plan and caused some consternation for the neighborhood. Overall, it's definitely helped the local neighborhoods. If you stay still, you're going backwards -- there have to be new things in order to have either rebirth or continued vitality."

This is not to say that the "compatibility" issues raised vis-a-vis Central Park were not worth raising. Unlike Sixth & Lamar, which despite being a key traffic nexus generated, before its recent projects, little traffic itself, 38th & Lamar -- also a key crossroads -- was already home to Seton Hospital, one of Austin's largest institutions of any kind. Since 1991, area residents have wrestled not only with Central Park, but also a major expansion of Seton which never happened, and later the Heart Hospital, which after site-plan wrangling and financial troubles for its parent company may also not happen. A spit to the north is the Triangle development (see accompanying story), which promises to generate plenty of impact itself.

Though neighborhood activists are often depicted by developers as fickle and unpredictable, ready to wail like banshees at any infill project for whatever reason seems handy, there are only three ways to really piss a neighborhood off. One is to destroy its cherished local landmark -- a tree, a park, an old house. Another is to expose it to real danger -- flood waters, escaped felons, toxic waste. The third is to increase traffic, and this is a big problem for most infill projects -- even, as we saw in last year's Mesa Drive battle, outside the inner city proper. Almost by definition, most private-sector projects, whether commercial or residential, get built along major thoroughfares. The problem with infill begins when the streets of established intown neighborhoods become major arteries. Infill development often puts more cars where they're least wanted, at least in the absence of any real transportation alternatives, and that includes Capitol Metro. That may change if and when we see light rail, but that debate is open to all comers, including folks who at the moment have little concern for the central city, certainly none that connects to the interior of their wallets.

Exhibit D: East 11th Street

The city-at-large also gets a free pass into public-sector development debates, and East 11th Street -- the southern frontier of the historic Robertson Hill neighborhood -- has been Ground Zero for such debates for decades.

Of course, the rancor generated by the SCIP (Scattered Cooperative Infill Program) housing developments, the Austin Revitalization Authority, and damn near everything else built or proposed for the Eastside, transcends mere squabbles over land use, hewn as each project's outlines are by conflicts over color, class, crime, and corruption. But the ongoing drama of East Austin revitalization is also about land use, and it too puts infill on trial. The terms are somewhat different, given the scale of the envisioned changes to East 11th Street -- while even a project the size of Central Park is still part of an existing neighborhood, SCIP II and the ARA could in effect create a new neighborhood on the bones of an existing one. This naturally torques folks on the Inner East Side who think the area has prematurely been declared defunct, but Robertson Hill clearly has problems that Rosedale doesn't, and the goal of reinventing, rather than preserving, the district is not an entirely specious one.

As the SCIP and ARA bump along at a glacial pace, though, they inevitably project two different and incompatible visions of a New Robertson Hill, both of which also grind against other goals for a renewed central city. When SCIP II was first proposed years ago, before any hint of an infill boom or much talk of downtown renewal, there wasn't much disagreement that lower-income residential development was, if not the highest and best use, certainly the most likely and practical use for the Inner East Side. So block after block of substandard housing between 11th and 12th Streets was taken over by the city, slated for replacement with what are basically suburban ranch homes, such as the SCIP I project had built further along 11th Street in Blackshear. Aesthetically, this may seem stupid, but it's happened all over the country, and while SCIP I's "Heritage Heights" may not be everything it could be, its location -- walled off from the world by Huston-Tillotson, Blackshear Elementary, and the State Cemetery -- helped ensure that it wouldn't do damage.

By the time the ARA came along, however, much had changed, and SCIP II now seems way out of step. When Eric Mitchell ascended to his aspired status as Eastside potentate, his plans for Robertson Hill were clearly commercial -- a district that, if not actually part of downtown Austin, was adjunct to it, with chain-store retail, big office buildings, and lots of surface parking. This created actual physical conflict over land use with Mitchell's allies behind SCIP II, who've since had to expand their project into adjacent neighborhoods to free up their suddenly more desirable Robertson Hill land for a commercial corridor. Still unresolved is the conceptual conflict it creates, as SCIP II is now faced with marketing low-density single-family homes in a neighborhood that's being born with its own set of nasty impacts. Will the owners of SCIP homes have any recourse to challenge the scale and scope of ARA projects? Probably less recourse, at best, than Rosedale or Hyde Park.

This is depressing, especially given that the trends and movements that have borne the notion of a compact city -- traditional town planning, New Urbanism, mixed use, urban villages, call them what you will -- offer an obvious solution to this dilemma. By reconfiguring SCIP II as a higher-density development, incorporating multiple uses from its inception, you have a much better fit with the ARA, and by reconfiguring ARA as a mixed-use suite of projects, offering housing and community retail services instead of a cryogenically preserved highway strip, you move much closer to the ultimate goals of SCIP II. If we were talking about purely private-sector developments, this would already have happened, even if not through a global plan. But because both of these projects use public funds with their inherently limited wiggle room -- and have been tailored and re-tailored to best fit the most easily obtained federal funding -- their transformation, and inevitable delay, carries political liabilities that most of their backers would rather not face.

The Closing Arguments

Trying to turn such dreadnoughts as SCIP and the ARA around is much more difficult than starting with New Urbanist goals at a project's inception. The new big-daddy infill project on the block -- the potential redevelopment of Robert Mueller Municipal Airport -- has already been well-defined as a multi-use urban village even before a single architect has put pen to paper. And if and when the state finally lets go of Camp Mabry -- which may happen as the entrenched neighborhoods around the site see their own complexions and needs change -- you can bet that what goes there will be more a product of today's and tomorrow's trends than of yesterday's tried-and-supposedly-true strategies.

While Mueller and Camp Mabry aren't exactly greenfields, they do offer the same tabula rasa to developers as does the perimeter, and the tendency for developers to want to start with a fresh greenfield rather than building within brown areas has been the standard knock against New Urbanist projects like Seaside, Florida and Memphis' Mud Island/Harbortown. No one quite knows yet how to bring the same mix of residents, businesses and land uses that used to define every American town back to neighborhoods from which either people, or commerce, or public space have been driven. "We're still seeing piecemeal projects -- we don't know what it means to have new developments work with different structures in existing areas," says Heimsath, who as chair of the Citizens Planning Committee (CPC) is the latest planner/architect to joust with official planning dragons on the central city's behalf. "We still have no idea whether these projects are repairing neighborhoods, or harming neighborhoods that need to be protected, or just doing nobody any good."

Supposedly, that's what master-planning -- the M word -- is supposed to resolve, though most of what we know as "master planned communities" are gated, homogenized, greenfield enclaves, designed to avoid the collision of uses you'd expect in a central city rather than to resolve them. But the notion of master-planning an existing neighborhood, identifying what sorts of projects will work to fill in its particular blanks, is a valid one that is practiced throughout the globe. As part of the CPC's implementation process, the city's planning department will select two neighborhoods to work with to create such neighborhood plans, which would be written into the Land Development Code.

Over time, as every neighborhood does its own plan, the results would comprise a real, comprehensive plan to succeed Austin Tomorrow. The late-1980s Austinplan effort attempted this level of specificity -- the city was broken into sectors and subsectors, with guidelines identified for basically each block -- but that top-down, one-shot approach, though it involved the input of thousands of citizens, helped lead to the public perception of Austinplan as an unworkable behemoth, which is how developer interests were able to get it shelved at the eleventh hour before its adoption. As well, the primary variable in Austinplan was density, without much consideration of types of land use. "We want to weave a tapestry from the back side," says Heimsath. "We don't want to try to envision the entire city in advance. By taking baby steps, we can deal most effectively with all the issues that make up a neighborhood vision -- service delivery and character as well as land use."

Even with general public and political support for the CPC, and an apparent commitment to making its proposals happen (if only to avoid the embarrassment of yet another vaporware plan that gets announced but never implemented), there are still plenty of quarters in Austin where this type of planning is considered radical. Certainly, it hasn't been followed with the City's own sponsored projects on the East Side, or with its tax-abatement policy that promotes useless and wasteful sprawl better than any plan ever could. And to the degree that a compact city is the goal, it's still appallingly easy for a developer to avoid doing anything to achieve that goal. The city's incentive program for "central urban redevelopment" (CURE) offers fee waivers to developers that maybe, on a major project, amount to a day's worth of tax breaks for Samsung.

This we all understand, but we must acknowledge that Austin is treading water, with a more retrogressive and, at times, downright corrupt planning process than not just Portland, but cities all over the country. Part of this is because Texas is backward as a whole; when California and Florida -- which owe much of their existence to the sprawl economy, developer pillage and senseless and wasteful growth -- start talking at the highest levels of government, Republicans as well as Democrats, about sustainability and compact cities, you know the jig is up. As the report of California's Little Hoover Commission -- handpicked by a GOP governor famous for mainlining real estate PAC money -- neatly put it, "We must either change or die." We are probably at least a decade from seeing similar trends out of Texas state government. But even Dallas and Fort Worth are more hip to the need for better and wiser development policies, or at least aren't willing to foster growth throughout the Metroplex at their central cities' expense.

It may be shameful enough to be less progressive than Fort Worth that Austin's civic powers will get off the dime where sustainable development is concerned. But perhaps the ad hoc and entrepreneurial approach taken during the current infill boom is more in keeping with our character after all, progressive and liberal though we may be. "I'm pleased, actually, that people aren't waiting for the legal and regulatory issues to sort themselves out," says Heimsath. "We've actually embarked on the vision and the experimentation, and we've benefitted from local investors who might not be looking for what others would call `highest and best use.' There's different options now, and thankfully we have people who have an emotional and visionary connection to our city, who are more interested in doing than in just talking."

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