Hot Corners: Land Use, Light Rail, and Smart Growth
Just as surely as a freeway does, a rail system would open up vast amounts of land to development. The difference is that, in the case of urban transit, that development is actually re-development, as in infill, as in Smart Growth, as in the worst nightmare of many Austin neighborhoods. So the key to making light rail work, and not hurt, is to put both the tracks and the trackside projects in the right places. Here are four likely hot corners along the Austin rail line -- what they are now, what they could or should be tomorrow, and when that tomorrow would likely come.
(Disclaimers: We, not Capital Metro, came up with the station locations shown here; though they seem common sensical options to us, the current planning phase of light rail is addressing this question and won't be completed for a while. And the data behind these maps is from the city's last comprehensive city-wide land use study, which is several years old.)
Exhibit A: East AustinPossible stations: Fifth and Chicon (1), Seventh at Northwestern (2), Capital Metro HQ on Pleasant Valley Road (3)
Line: The Inner Orange Line, dubbed "Phase 1B" of the system
To be completed: Between 2008 and 2013, depending on financing
What could or should be there: One could bet the farm that, if rail comes, some of these warehouses and depots will be turned into residential loft projects, and that vacant or dilapidated housing in the adjoining neighborhoods would be next. Already, homes near here are selling for unheard-of prices, so the market for such projects exists now. Such redevelopment will be easier to the west of here, within the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood plan, if the city approves its plan to put a mixed-use overlay on its industrial corridors. But most of the map here lies within the Holly planning area, whose team is dominated by El Concilio, the most vigorously anti-rail, anti-gentrification neighborhood group in Austin.
Exhibit B: North Central AustinPossible stations: Lamar and Airport (1), Lamar at Koenig (2), Highland Mall (3), the Triangle (4), among others
Lines: Along Lamar, the Red/Green line (Phase 1); along Airport, the Inner Red Line (Phase 5)
To be completed: Along Lamar, by 2008; along Airport, between 2016 and 2022
What could and should be here: Since this is the point where two lines would cross, the triangle between Lamar, Airport and Koenig, especially, is ripe for transit-oriented redevelopment, though the neighbors understandably may disagree. The Triangle itself is already planned, for now, for mixed-use density unmatched anywhere in this area, and its planner, Peter Calthorpe, will not work on projects unless they have transit service. But given the long horizon for rail buildout -- especially along Airport -- it's not farfetched, and indeed quite likely, that the whole Highland Mall mega-district, on both sides of IH-35 and U.S. 290, will be a massive reconstruction site served by the A-Train. (Another likely bet: Some of the old "airport hotels" at this corner, now with no airport to serve, will be converted to multi-family.)
Exhibit C: Souththeast AustinPossible stations: Montopolis and Riverside (1), Ben White and Riverside (1), Montopolis and Burleson (1)
Line: Outer Orange Line (to the airport -- Phase 3 or 4)
To be completed: If Phase 3, 2008 to 2015; if Phase 4, 2014 to 2019
What could and should be there: Nowhere else in Austin is it more important that, if it takes transit-oriented development seriously, the city act now to make it possible. The lack of density out here is why the Orange Line -- the connector to the airport that a lot of Austinites thought made perfect sense as a starter line -- has been pushed so far back in the cycle. New deals are going on out here all the time, but mostly for affordable-housing subdivisions, including manufactured housing, that may already be ripe for redevelopment a decade from now, and for supposedly mixed-use industrial complexes like Interport and Met Center (on opposite sides of the Ben White/Riverside junction) that need to be planned, right now, to accommodate future transit. And the large tracts of land surrounding the big employers likewise need to be turned into something other than surface parking.
Exhibit D: Northwest AustinPossible stations: Parmer and MoPac (1), or MoPac between Parmer and Duval (2) (these could also be opposite ends of one big station)
Line: Red/Green Line (Phase 1)
To be completed: By 2008
What could and should be here: Though there are certainly opportunities for development at the north end of the line -- particularly farther north from here, at Howard Lane and McNeil Road -- there are two obstacles to transforming the area around Parmer, which is well on its way to becoming a freeway itself. One is that the developments here are so new and so large -- after all, this part of MoPac didn't exist ten years ago. The other is that the subdivisions like Milwood come so close to the rail line -- that attractive white space just west of Parmer and MoPac would bump up against single-family homes, which limits just how dense and intense a new project can be. Most likely here would be a project or several that were ultimately extensions of the station itself, which would logically be a park-and-ride.