Naked City

The End of the Road

Dave Sullivan
Dave Sullivan (Photo By John Anderson)

So what's wrong with cul-de-sacs (or is it "culs-de-sac")? Are they unsafe, inefficient, or just too "suburban" for latter-day Austin fashion? For all these reasons and more, the little "circles" and "coves" that distinguish nearly all late-model subdivisions, and the long winding streets that connect them, have been under attack all summer down at the Planning Commission.

As often happens when Austin leaders try to change the ground rules of planning and development, this has been a war of attrition. Back in May, the Planning Commission's Comprehensive Plan subcommittee launched an effort to require all new residential subdivisions to conform with the planning criteria established by the city's Traditional Neighborhood Development (TND) ordinance.

These would include all the hallmarks of New Urbanism: shorter blocks, smaller lots, narrower streets, and above all a street grid, as you'd find in any Central Austin neighborhood, instead of the connectors and cul-de-sacs. (An actual TND is also mixed-use, with mandated employment centers, which is why the city couldn't just zone a single-family project TND and be done with it.) To the surprise of few (except, apparently, Comp Plan subcommittee chair and eternal optimist Ben Heimsath), this proposal met with blank stares, then howls of protest, from local builders and developers.

Though the PC made a game effort -- sponsoring an exercise where existing subdivisions were replanned to TND standards -- the committee soon had to admit defeat. Builders talked up how much more expensive the houses would have to be (a couple of thousand bucks each, which would knock them out of thousands of buyers' price ranges, the industry says). The denser TND standards would also lead to more impervious cover, spelling trouble for builders in the sensitive western watersheds -- which is, of course, where the cul-de-sacs are thickest on the ground. At which point the PC subcommittee vowed to come back with "TND Lite."

After some more twists and turns and public hearings, TND Lite, as presented to the full commission by city staff last week, was a set of incentives -- expedited permits, reduced fees, the usual stuff -- for developers who agreed to put in grid streets with shorter blocks, smaller lots, traffic-calming devices, pedestrian links between non-connecting streets, et al. This was not good enough for former PC-ers Dave Sullivan and Rachael Rawlins, both of whom lobbied for an actual ordinance mandating these standards. The PC agreed, punting the issue on a unanimous vote back to the Comprehensive Plan subcommittee to draft the relevant code language.

What makes this whole issue fun is that collectors and cul-de-sacs, like TNDs with grid streets, are the product of an honorable and progressive planning tradition. It is true that, as rendered in most local subdivisions, cul-de-sac neighborhoods are inherently auto-dependent and unwalkable, clogging up our crowded roads and creating hosts of dangerous intersections. There is also that special public-realm je ne sais quoi of a grid-street neighborhood -- you know, people sitting on front porches, corner stores, and all that. Among the speakers before the PC last week was Hyde Park eminence Dorothy Richter, who attributed much of that neighborhood's boutique status to its street grid. But it is also true that the hilly western topography does not lend itself to grid streets, and respecting and honoring the natural setting is usually seen as a good thing. For decades, it was the rigid street grid, not the flowing collector plan, that was viewed as a triumph of economy over the environment, and the winding streets of, say, hill towns in Tuscany are generally viewed as charming, not wasteful. The width of the streets in our late-model housing tracts is a real issue -- many are called "trails" and "lanes" but are really modified highways -- but their layout may ultimately be a question of taste.

Most of the summer's proposals would allow developers to build winding roads and cul-de-sacs where, in the PC's and City Council's opinion, the topography demanded it. But, as usual, developers have already threatened to take their business beyond the city limits rather than deal with such hassles.

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