Naked City

Austin Stories

Even in Austin, the City Planning Capital of the World, street design tends to fly under the radar of general interest. Still, planners know the design scheme a city chooses will determine the character and feel of its neighborhoods much more than elms or magnolias or the height of street cuts. Around Austin, two schools of design prevail: On the one hand, you've got Hyde Park: narrow, slow-moving streets laid out in a gridlike fashion, with blocks every couple hundred yards. On the other, there's, well, Cedar Park: long, winding streets that feed enclosed cul-de-sacs, with the whole spaghetti bowl emptying out onto zooming, vast arterials such as Parmer Lane. And while no one's standing up at council chambers to defend the aesthetic of Northwest Austin, a proposal (tentatively scheduled to be heard by the council March 1) that would mandate a grid street pattern in all new developments is meeting with some well-heeled opposition, and likely has a long and winding road ahead.

The proposed ordinance, recommended by a unanimous Planning Commission in 1999 and backed by Capital Metro, would require that all new subdivisions be built with fewer cul-de-sacs, shorter blocks, and greater "connectivity" to nearby neighborhoods and amenities -- all, of course, anathema to the walled-in, cul-de-sac-driven suburban design craze. After all, it's the house at the end of the cul-de-sac, as grid proponent (and former PC-er) Rachael Rawlins points out, that brings in the biggest haul for developers. And they, as a June letter from the Real Estate Council of Austin opposing the ordinance suggests, aren't going down without a fight on their right to sprawl as far and fast as they want to.

"Streets cost money, pavement costs money … and [suburban developments] rely heavily on arterials, which are provided by the city," says Rawlins. "The real reason for the opposition is money." Of course, Hyde Park ain't exactly down-market real estate -- and ordinance backers are likely to push that point as they try to persuade the council that a layout developed in the early 20th century is just as apt for the 21st.

City staff has weighed in with its own voluntary pilot program, which would reward developers who reduce street widths and lot sizes and increase street connectivity with fee waivers, expedited application reviews, and other goodies, according to George Adams, principal planner with the city's Planning, Environmental and Conservation Services Dept. Another proposal being tossed about would combine incentives with some mandatory changes. But grid proponents say voluntary compliance doesn't work any better for developers than it does for industrial polluters. If they can convince four council members to carry this big stick come March 1, sprawl in Austin might look a whole lot different in years to come…

Speaking of incentive programs, remember traditional neighborhood districts? Those oh-so-Smart, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use communities that were supposed to start materializing sometime in the past couple of years? So far, not one TND has taken root in Austin. That isn't for lack of trying on the city's part -- they've identified no fewer than four target TND "zones," and even approved incentives for one such district in Northeast Austin, to be built by Milburn Homes and several other partners. But so far, no developer has managed to secure both zoning and the Smart Growth funds to put a TND on the ground. This week, Brandt's Crossing, a Brigid Shea-consulted development planned for Southeast Austin, is scheduled for zoning and annexation. Problem is, developer Haytham Dollett wants $8 million to make the neighborhood happen, including $1 million for trees; noting that much of the infrastructure for the neighborhood is already in place, the city offered just under half that amount. For months, both the zoning and annexation have been in semi-permanent limbo on the council agenda. Unless the parties can reach some kind of compromise on the cost and value of the project -- scheduled for zoning and annexation this week -- Milburn may win the race to build Austin's first new traditional neighborhood after all…

Roma Design Group reps met with city officials last week to submit the long-awaited final draft of the Seaholm District Master Plan, inching the idle power plant closer to its rebirth as a public attraction of some sort. The Children's Museum and the mayor's library task force have both eyed the facility for possible use, but the city is still a long way off from settling on a conversion process for the cavernous old building. Earlier public surveys, however, seemed to favor Seaholm's use as a tech-science center. Whatever happens, let's all agree not to let Stratus Properties in on this deal…

Score one for the heathens. For years, the SUV-driving congregants of Hyde Park Baptist Church have claimed they need a new parking garage to serve their ever-expanding congregation (and vehicles). This week, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman decided it's high time they started using the one they already have. Goodman has a proposal, up before the council this Thursday, to direct the city manager to study the feasibility of residents-only permit parking in the Hyde Park area. Neighbors have long complained that Hyde Park churchgoers eschew their own parking facility in favor of more convenient on-street parking, leaving the upper floors of their five-story garage clear enough to land a helicopter on. Although the terms of this one are up to the city manager, a likely scenario would restrict parking on weekday afternoons and Sunday mornings, when congestion around the church is at its heaviest…

Several hundred people gathered Monday night at a UT lecture hall to hear several speakers anticipate the programs of the new Bush administration -- and discuss how best to resist them. The "democracy teach-in," sponsored by the Austin Democracy Coalition, featured speakers on Bush and the death penalty, civil rights, abortion rights, foreign policy, and environmental protection. The coalition was organized in the wake of the presidential election to protest the Supreme Court decision in the Florida election and the Bush inauguration. Organizers hope to maintain the momentum created by that protest for grassroots organizing on a wider range of issues. For more info, call Sonia Santana at 441-2507 or Bob Jensen at 471-1990…

With little fanfare, a request-for-qualifications (RFQ) to solicit "master developers" for the former Robert Mueller Airport has been drafted by the city's consultants, Roma Design Group, and presented to the city's Mueller Commission for comment. Most of the draft is Roma's recast prose from its RMMA Redevelopment and Reuse Plan, stressing the mixed-use pedestrian-friendly urban village thing the city is looking for. And what are we seeking in a master developer? The right candidate (in all likelihood, a team of firms) will have managed major publicly owned real estate projects somewhere else; secured strong financial backing; built all the different kinds of buildings called for in the RMMA Plan; be able to do the specific things (like putting in infrastructure) the city is asking the master developer to do; and have "demonstrated understanding" of what the city is trying to do with the development. The best responses will be sent the much more elaborate request for proposals (RFP), and the best respondent to that will bring their lawyer to the city's table. There's no timeline for this whole process, but Roma hopes to have the finalized RFQ to the printer by March 8, and out to the world by March 21, at which point it'll also be on the city's Web site…

Bill Spelman: Austin's Kitty Kelley? That's overstating it a bit, but local gossip hounds should keep their eyes out for the former council member's upcoming book, which will also interest policy wonks and students of political process. In true publish-or-perish spirit, Spelman is gearing up to kick out a volume of case studies based on his experiences on the council. The target audience, of course, is public policy students, who will dissect the arcana of zoning cases and water quality protection laws in their LBJ School classes when the book is finished (tentatively a year from now.) But with chapter titles like "Jackie Goodman and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" -- and a cast of characters that includes Daryl Slusher, Bill Bunch, Richard Suttle, and Robin Rather -- we're willing to bet a few city insiders will snap this one up the day it hits the shelves…

-- Contributors: Mike Clark-Madison, Michael King, Amy Smith

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grid streets, Rachael Rawlins, City Council, George Adams, traditional neighborhood districts, Brandt's Crossing, Seaholm District Master Plan, Hyde Park Baptist Church, Jackie Goodman, Austin Democracy Coalition, Mueller Commission, Bill Spelman

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