Patching Things Up

Triangle Developers and Neighbors Work Together

This open field at the "Triangle" bordered by Guadalupe, Lamar and 45th Street will soon be filled with a Randall's supermarket, a cinema, restaurants, coffee shops, various retail, and a big parking lot.
photograph by Kenny Braun
In the history of Austin's great war between developers and citizens, the "Triangle Development" probably will not be remembered as one of the epic battles. In fact, the battle cry of the respective generals seems to be, "Can't we all just get along?"

The "Triangle" refers to that grassy patch of land in north central Austin bordered by Guadalupe, Lamar, and 45th Street, which has the Austin Child Guidance Center and the Texas Mental Health & Mental Retardation (MHMR) Department's Children's Psychiatric Unit residing in its southwest corner.

The open, almost treeless patch of grass isn't long for this world. Coming soon to a field near you: A Randall's supermarket, along with a theatre, restaurants, coffee shops, various retail stores, and of course, a big parking lot.

The incoming shopping center, to be developed by Cencor Realty Services, has the environmentally aware, pro-compact-city neighborhood in a bit of a quandary -- after years of fighting sprawl, especially discouraging building over the Edwards Aquifer in southwest Austin, and advocating more central city development, they are getting their wishes fulfilled. But as they say, be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it. More than one Hyde Park resident, when told of plans for the Triangle, has said something to the effect of "Yuck -- a Randall's?" often followed by "Is it really necessary to cover up every last patch of open space in town?"

But it may not be as bad as people expect. Those same grumblings were heard when HEB announced its plans to build Central Market a few blocks to the south of the Triangle, at 38th & Lamar. Central Market has since gone on to become quite a hit, popular not only as a "natural foods" grocery store, but also a hangout of sorts, featuring an outdoor cafe and live music.

Although the wisdom of building another supermarket a mere five blocks from Central Market is questionable -- Randall's execs must be awfully confident to go toe-to-toe with the HEB-owned juggernaut -- both the developers and the neighborhood associations (NAs) with which they have negotiated are hoping the area will take on a similar character -- not a mere strip mall, but, as Hyde Park Neighborhood Association representative Cecil Pennington puts it, a "destination."

Pennington is a planning consultant who formerly worked for the Texas General Land Office as head of the Land Planning and Analysis program. In that position, he became familiar with the "destination" scenario through his involvement with the planning of the 38th Street Public Utility District upon which Central Market now sits -- a deal that also involved developers, neighborhoods, and the MHMR. Now, he sits on the neighborhood side of the three-way table.

He and reps from the 11 other NAs surrounding the Triangle have been in negotiations with Cencor, a statewide developer with offices in Austin, since late 1995, shortly after discovering that MHMR would use the property as a source of revenue to fund halfway houses rather than for facility expansion. As a condition for development, the state issued Cencor a vague mandate to accept neighborhood input.

"We [the NAs] huddled... and decided what we're going to do is, up front, tell the developers what our expectations were," Pennington says. "The biggest problem that we've seen as neighborhoods is coming into the process too late, and always being labeled as deal-breakers. So we created a document of what we considered were `neighborhood compatibility standards.' The neighborhood leaders brainstormed... and provided this document that's divided into land use, traffic and access, site design, and building design, formatted with a vision statement for each of those projects, with goals, objectives, and actions the developer can take to secure this. We tried to make it friendly for the developer, and it was put together by professionals -- developers and planners from the neighborhood. It's set up to put the kitchen sink into this thing; we went down to how they handle trash delivery.

"If we can just get 60% of this, we would have a very good project that we would be happy with. The bottom line of this whole document is that the neighborhood did not want a standard commercial strip center; we did not want to see the `Golden Triangle' [the busy retail area between MoPac and US183] recreated at Guadalupe and Lamar. What we wanted was a New Urbanism-style town center. Something other than drive-by retail. The project we've seen addresses some of this. Whether it addresses it adequately is the question at this point in time."

Residents acted as collabortors, not deal-breakers, in efforts to come up with the 45th Street Triangle plan that Hyde Park Neighborhood Association rep Cecil Pennington (above) displays at the development site
photograph by Kenny Braun
To hear Pennington tell it, Cencor is a smarter company than certain other realty firms with which Austin has dealt, realizing that working with citizens, rather than bullying them, is the way to go.

"Tom Terkel [Cencor's executive vice president] has been a very good person. He's been open and, I feel, honest and willing to talk with the neighborhoods. He has also been honest enough to say he doesn't believe some of the New Urbanism doctrine, he doesn't feel some things will work, and he won't try to do it. But that's fine -- I'd rather have someone do that than try to promise you the sun. We've made some improvements on what was originally put forward."

Terkel says that it took a while before his company and the neighborhood representatives saw eye-to-eye. "We started from different points of view," he says. "We came to the process with an orientation that reflected the experiences we've had in developing projects in suburban communities. The [Triangle] neighbors that we've dealt with brought to the process a perspective based on a familiarity with their neighborhood, and an appreciation for how inner-city development should occur. There's been an educational process. It's really been a two-way street, where I've learned a lot about some of their ideas, many of which we now agree with, now that we understand them. And they have also learned from us what some of the needs and requirements of the retailers that we deal with are. We've blended those requirements with the inner-city development goals that they have, to come up with a site plan that everybody feels pretty good about. It reflects a consensus of compromise....

"The overriding thrust of the goals that we heard from the neighborhoods was that they wanted to make our project blend in to the community, and they wanted the buildings and the pedestrian access to those buildings to be very user-friendly," says Terkel, "as opposed to being a distinct, separate place that was not user-friendly to pedestrians and considered only vehicular traffic. I think those goals are excellent goals and are going to work very, very well at this location. We've incorporated a number of changes to the site plans to reflect those goals."

The area is currently something of a speedway, and especially difficult for bicycle traffic. Strong traffic-calming methods will be needed if the Triangle is suddenly going to become a magnet to cars. Among the suggestions being examined are grooved pavement, the noise of which theoretically would alarm drivers and get them to slow down. A much bolder possibility that Cencor is considering is installing raised pedestrian crossings -- two-foot elevations that could be seen as an oversized variation on the speed humps currently being used to calm traffic in many neighborhoods, but doubling to serve both cars and foot traffic alike. Such pedestrian crossings are already planned on the Drag in an effort to calm UT-area traffic.

And if completely replacing the grassy field with acres of parking lot is distasteful, some underground parking is being considered, and Cencor is leaning towards a detention pond underneath the Randall's as a means to handle the increased runoff from the lot's impervious cover. Drainage runoff is a major concern to the North University Neighborhood Association (NUNA), which frequently sees flooding of the segment of Waller Creek that runs through Hemphill Park. NUNA President Bob Morse says he isn't completely satisfied with the runoff plans he has seen so far.

Pennington also confirms that there are still some problems. One problem doesn't have a ready resolution -- a proposed apartment complex is now out of the plan (as documented in a recent Austin American-Statesman article, the local apartment market is finally starting to weaken), thus stymieing a major mixed-usage goal. At the most recent meeting between the developer and the neighborhoods, Cencor contemplated putting some apartments above the retail stores, but that is still only a consideration.

Also, Pennington says, "One of the things that kept coming back was the dominance of Randall's, this big old store and how it fit on the site and this big parking lot."

Pennington says that Lamar Street neighborhoods wanted a buffer of retail shops between them and the Randall's to avoid having a monolithic, box-shaped store with its back turned to them, and both he and other neighborhood reps presented several different possibilities for this.

Proposed site plan for the Triangle at 45th Street, Lamar, and Guadalupe

"Another thing that we do not see on this plan," Pennington says, "is a transit stop through [the development]. It may be that [Cencor is] just not committing themselves to a spot at this time; verbally they've said they'll do something with transit." (A spokesman with Capital Metro confirms that the development won't interfere with plans to send light rail down the Guadalupe corridor.)

Although the major players involved in the Triangle Development have committed to working together, one certainly shouldn't get the impression that Cencor is being welcomed into the area with open arms. Even some of the neighborhood reps who've been making suggestions to improve Cencor's plan admit that, given their druthers, would just as soon see the Triangle remain open green space. Other neighbors are flat-out opposed to the development. Elliot Young, from the Hyde Park North neighborhood, authored an article harshly condemning the project in (sub)TEX, a UT-based newspaper. In it, Young assailed the development as one more step in "the mall-ification of our lives."

"It's something which I don't think anyone in the community needs at this point," Young explains. "There's so many other supermarkets and strip malls that are surrounding this neighborhood. It's something which I think will negatively affect the community, aesthetically taking a green space away and putting up an ugly mall."

Another major objection from Young -- and many other residents in a recent meeting of the Hyde Park North Neighborhood Association, an auxiliary of the larger Hyde Park Neighborhood Association -- is the impact that the new development will have on neighborhood businesses like the Flightpath Coffee House and the Fresh Plus Grocery's 43rd St. & Duval location.

"If there was some sort of development that had included local businesses, that is something that I'm in favor of and people in the community are in favor of. What we don't want is a proliferation of more Wal-Marts or HEBs or huge corporations that come in and don't really give anything to the community. The volume with which they do business allows them to undersell small businesses."

Young also expressed concern about the larger issue of the development -- the privatization of public resources necessitated by state underfunding of its agencies. Cencor is leasing the land from MHMR, which has decided that it won't use the Triangle for expansion, and needs the cash flow that the development would generate.

So far, though, neither Young nor any other area resident has mounted an organized campaign to stop the development altogether.

"This is not a bad development," Pennington concludes. "It has a pedestrian crossing down the center, it has daytime and nighttime uses, it has a mix of offices with retail, it does have some traffic calming and pedestrian amenities. The question is, is that enough? And what can be done to make it better?"

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