Here Comes the Train
Transit-oriented development promises to radically reshape our skyline. Is Austin ready?
Standing at the end of Rutledge Spur Road at the far northern tip of Austin, it's hard to believe the crazy-quilt urban sprawl of 183 North is only about half a mile away. Rutledge is a rural, one-lane road that looks like it's only recently been paved. It's lined on one side by a handful of quaint little houses that once must have offered a country refuge from the nearby city's hustle and bustle. On the opposite side, the houses face only Hill Country live oaks and cactus. The three-quarter-mile spur dead-ends at the Capital Metro-owned railroad tracks, punctuated there by a rustic, long-abandoned farmhouse and windmill, the entire scene quite an anachronism in modern Austin.
And if city of Austin planners have their way, this nostalgic but little-used rural backdrop will soon be gone. In fact, more than gone completely obliterated.
For the 2000 referendum, opponents of light rail successfully used the campaign slogan, "Rail: Costs Too Much, Does Too Little." Supporters responded with the streamlined and therefore cheaper commuter-rail version approved by the voters last November. But although the cost has come down, the next generation of rail still carries major metropolitan ambitions and when one studies the proposed Transit-Oriented Development Ordinance pending before the City Council, it's clear that as the planners conceive it, rail is going to do a lot. Depending on your perspective, the question remains whether those contemplated changes will be good or bad for Austin.
"Transit-Oriented Development" is not the most catchy of project names. It certainly doesn't have the alarming, call-to-action drama of, say, the "Save Our Springs Ordinance." Yet, if it comes to pass the TOD Ordinance is on the City Council agenda today, but likely will be postponed it could have at least as big a long-term impact on Austin's life and urban landscape as that other famed bit of the city legal code.
The logic behind the ordinance is simple: If the city wants Capital Metro's mass transit especially the commuter rail line approved by voters last November to be efficiently used, then the "mass" needs to be near the "transit." The TOD Ordinance, if it fulfills its intentions, will through zoning standards promote much higher development densities than ever before seen in seven different areas of Austin, clustered around six proposed rail stations and one park-and-ride bus line. The explicit desire is to put as many potential mass transit users within quick walking or bicycling distance of the rail stations as possible.
"This is where I think you have a real intersection of the city and Capital Metro's goals," says George Adams, principal planner in the city's Transportation, Planning, and Sustainability Department. "We want to create a really mixed-use, walkable environment that meets a lot of the city's desires for more compact and sustainable land-use patterns, and it meets Capital Metro's desire to increase transit ridership and make the most of the community's investment in transit. We're trying to tie the land-use patterns and the transportation in this case, [mass] transit together."
Although there are strong distinctions among the proposed TOD zones, the developmental effect in each case should be quite dramatic: Existing neighborhoods in the central city now mostly composed of modest, single-family residences and one- and two-story businesses could see the sprouting of six-story buildings; and the farther-flung zones, currently occupied either by pastures or by classic suburban sprawl, are expected to host "town centers," with up to 10-story buildings sustaining a mix of both residential and business uses and none of the archetypal big-box retail marked (or disfigured) by acres of open-space parking. Additionally, the ordinance would ban certain "non-pedestrian-friendly" uses within the zones, such as automotive-related businesses, storage buildings, and scrap yards; and at the densest parts of the zones, even single-family housing would be forbidden.
The process of creating this potentially landmark ordinance has been quick some believe too quick. The City Council requested that staff begin crafting the ordinance back in September, in anticipation of rail's November approval at the ballot box, with a due date of Jan. 27 (today). In the interim, staff has presented the draft at neighborhood and stakeholder meetings, making modifications based on the feedback gathered there. And certainly the years of debate over various rail proposals have featured plenty of discussion of the new urbanization potential associated with rail. However, if this story is the first you've heard of a master plan for "transit-oriented development," you're not alone; in January gatherings of concerned citizens, and even on citizen commissions, a common complaint was, "I just heard about this."
In fact, when Adams and other planning department staffers presented the ordinance to the Urban Transportation Commission on Dec. 20, the UTC recommended that while the council should move forward with the TOD, they should slow down the process, in order to allow citizens more time for study and input.
"The owners of these properties ... didn't find out about this project until a week ago Monday [Dec. 13]," complained Tomás Pantin to the UTC, adding that the holidays had exacerbated the problem. Pantin's photography studio would be within the Plaza Saltillo TOD. Likewise, UTC member Greg Sapire commented, "Everything I know about this subject I've learned in the last 35 to 40 minutes."
"On the one hand, it has been a pretty aggressive schedule," Adams told me, "but and I'm not trying to minimize the importance of this at all but compared to a lot of code amendments that the city does, there has been a huge amount of public involvement on this. Typically with the code amendments, frequently no one will hear about it until it's at the Planning Commission [just before going to the City Council]. With this endeavor, we made a fairly substantial effort early on to get the word out. It was imperfect, because of limited resources."
Getting Into the Zones
For implementation, city staff proposes a two-step approach: First, define interim TOD overlay (zoning) districts around the seven areas; these zones are currently written into the TOD Ordinance draft, so this will be accomplished upon passage. Then, through a combined effort of stakeholders and Capital Metro, create well-defined specific plans for each individual station area, to be finished some time during 2006-07.
Since one size will not fit all areas, staff has designed four distinct types of TOD zones Neighborhood Centers, Town Centers, Regional Centers, and Downtown and within each of these, three different "scale zones" Gateway, Midway, and Transition to help the TOD zones blend with the surrounding areas. (See "Charting the TODs" for a detailed analysis of the characteristics of each zone.) In brief, the allowed densities would range from very intensive Downtown development, through less intensive but still high-density development at Regional and Town Centers, to lowest-density uses in the Neighborhood Centers. Looked at from the other end of the development telescope, commuters entering a TOD zone can expect to see slightly higher rooftops as a station approaches (the Transition), then even higher beginning about 1,500 feet from the station (Midway), and then the most intense development in the area immediately around the station platform (Gateway).
Each TOD zone type is an attempt to prescribe development appropriate for that particular station area. That's not to say that some zones will be innocuous in effect; aside from the Downtown usage (essentially more of the same), the new zone overlays will allow more intense land usage than is occurring in those areas now. And they won't just allow it, they will mandate it not only do the zones set maximum building heights, but in all but the transition zones of Neighborhood Centers, they prescribe minimum heights as well. And in the Gateways and Midways, only large-scale multifamily housing will be permitted single-family, duplexes, and the like will be banished to transition or non-TOD areas. (Pre-existing nonconforming uses will be grandfathered, but any property owner who changes the way his or her property is used will have to come into compliance with the new zoning conception.)
And building height is not the only standard the zoning prescribes minimum first-floor heights (15 feet), requires at least one entrance facing the street, large front windows, off-street parking, and setbacks of no more than 15 feet. All of these standards and other regulations in the spirit of the national trend toward "New Urbanism" are intended to create a walkable environment, with plenty of ground-level retail, hopefully creating a common public space where sidewalks become lively and cars are less necessary.
As the draft ordinance now stands, there is only one Downtown zone, planned for the rail station to be established near the Convention Center. Development promoted there would be almost unlimited Downtown is full of tall buildings, and this type of zoning just encourages more of the same, even requiring a minimum of six stories. The next three stops along the proposed rail route are Plaza Saltillo along East Fifth, the MLK neighborhood (at the East Austin site commonly known as the Featherlite Tract, just west of Airport Boulevard), and the Crestview neighborhood (at the intersection of Lamar and Airport, where the soon-to-be-vacated Huntsman Chemical facility now sits); these would all be Neighborhood Centers, with more modest rises ranging from a minimum of three to a maximum of six stories in the Gateway. Farther north, the train would stop at the intersection of Howard Lane and Burnet and end at the proposed Northwest Park & Ride on Rutledge Spur just east of Cedar Park on a piece of formerly state-owned property once known as "The Hog Farm." These latter two stations as well as a bus-only Park & Ride on North I-35 between Parmer and Howard would be the anchors of Town Centers, with mixed-use three- to 10-story buildings that, planners hope, will help stem the tide of strip malls and big-box shopping centers that are currently about as friendly to pedestrians and bicyclists as the center lanes of an expressway.
(Currently, no Regional Centers are part of the approved rail plan, but the ordinance nonetheless would provide for them, on the principle that they might be useful in the future. A Regional Center was originally planned for the UT Pickle Campus on Braker Lane, but due to unresolved issues of where the station platforms would be located, it was later removed from the ordinance, as were proposed Town Center zones at Highland Mall and a bus-only Park & Ride on South I-35.)
The Devil's in the Details
The TOD Ordinance hardly envisions a car-free utopia; it merely seeks to make the most of the limited mandate voters handed to Capital Metro on Nov. 2 a single rail line, running from Cedar Park to Downtown, much more humble than the light rail network that narrowly lost at the polls four years earlier.
For a while, the process seemed to be sailing along relatively smoothly, with more curiosity than animosity being expressed at various meetings. But city planners have hit their biggest speed bump at a series of meetings they did not arrange: a couple of hastily called gathering of 30 or 40 people in January at the Carver Library in East Austin, hurriedly trying to catch the train. The ad hoc group, an offshoot of some December meetings among affordable housing activists, included some of the heaviest hitters of Austin's neighborhood activists, including former council aide and South Austin Democratic activist Jeff Jack, former City Council member and UT professor Bill Spelman, professional campaign strategist and Liveable City activist Mark Yznaga, representatives of the Eastside environmental group People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources, and Hyde Park's Susan Moffat (wife of Chronicle publisher Nick Barbaro), to name a few.
Nobody in this group said they anticipate utopia, but all made it clear they believe that city planners could strive for a more effective plan than they've issued thus far. The meeting produced two major areas of concern: 1) again, that the process has happened too fast, with word about the ordinance process insufficiently disseminated a problem worsened by the December holidays, around which many of the official meetings were scheduled; and 2) not enough provision has yet been made in the contemplated development plan for affordable housing.
One inevitable problem to be addressed concerning intensified development within neighborhoods (especially Saltillo and MLK, and to a lesser but still troubling extent in Crestview) is obviously gentrification increasing the property values of a neighborhood to a point that the people already living there can no longer afford to do so. Staff originally tried to deal with the gentrification potential via incentives that would allow a greater maximum height and floor-to-area ratio (the ratio of total floor space versus lot size) to developers who would agree to set aside certain percentages of affordable housing. In short, the incentives applied in blanket fashion to all TOD areas of the city would be offered to developers who, for at least 15 years, would guarantee housing to people whose household income ranged from 50% to 80% of the median family income in metro Austin. But those proposed parameters clearly didn't satisfy housing advocates in attendance at the Carver meeting.
Affordable housing activist Alison Schmidt complained that 15 years is only about half of what most governmental grants require, and noted that in certain areas of town, 80% of MFI is still too rich for many people. Another activist, Susan Way, noted that such housing could still cost $1,400 in rent per month. "That's not affordable," she said.
Planning Department staff concluded the best way to deal with the situation was a full retreat, of sorts deciding that because affordable housing just isn't their area of expertise (that's the province of the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office), all such incentives were scrapped (removing about two full pages from the 14 pages of draft text), and the housing considerations were punted to step two of the process.
"We are understanding that each of the stations is different," says Adams. "We are proposing to defer that to the station planning phase, and it would become another element of the station area plan, where we could look at each station individually and really understand what are the needs for that particular area." At a second meeting of the Carver group, participants seemed uncertain as to whether this response was a good or bad thing.
Gentrification threatens not just residential real estate, but also small businesses. Pantin's photo studio, for example, has been on East Seventh since 1986. He says he's not against transit, but worries that the temporary overlay to lock in land uses and building specifications for the next few years will be too financially onerous for small businesses like his own.
"All these ideas are wonderful in principle," Pantin told the UTC, "but the problem is most of these changes happen right away. ... For a small business owner to build his own building is very, very expensive in this kind of construction. You're forced to have a storefront. We don't want to have a storefront. You're forced to have 15-foot high ceilings, and a certain number of floors. ... We need to slow down and get some of the owners' input."
Shortly after that meeting, staff responded by exempting businesses that occupy 8,000 square feet or less; Pantin later said that many Saltillo businesses would need that bumped up to at least 8,600.
Another potential challenge to local businesses is the planned ban on certain uses within the TOD zones. The list includes automotive repair services, sales, and washing; basic industry; convenience storage; equipment repair services and equipment sales ("equipment" meaning large farm implements, heavy trucks, and the like); recycling centers; scrap and salvage services; and vehicle storage. The theory behind such exclusions is that, with their need for sprawling outdoor space, these kinds of businesses would be incompatible with the sought-after development density.
Despite these exclusions, the grandfathering provisions within the draft ordinance mean that, for example, the cluster of auto-related businesses located all around Lamar and Justin probably needn't be worried about their immediate futures (although the property owners may find it financially advantageous to sell). But the proposed ban probably completely derails Troy Nichols, who was planning to relocate his Muffin Muffler business in May from Burnet Road to property he just bought within the proposed boundaries of the North Lamar TOD. Since the ordinance could already be in effect before he can set up shop, he'll likely be up the creek. "I'm one of those keeping-Austin-weird businesses," he complains, the kind of locally owned companies that Liveable City was in theory founded to protect.
Adams hopes that the changes to accommodate small business will help but admits that he probably can't help someone in the specific transitional predicament represented by Nichols. Ultimately, however, planners and really, some of the potential developers as well need the certainty that properties will mostly be in compliance with uses that will serve transit, well before the transit actually arrives.
Money will always flow in the direction of more money, and if a developer sees more profit in another Wal-Mart or Home Depot, that's what will get built, regardless of Capital Metro's intentions.
Polishing the Apple
If you've been in Austin for more than a year, and remember what the Triangle, the formerly grassy field bounded by Lamar, Guadalupe, and 45th, looked like before development-in-progress look again now, as it becomes a model for "New Urbanist" central-city design. You'll get some idea of what is coming in the neighborhoods targeted by TOD. In all of these areas, the transformation will be nearly as radical, and generally covering areas twice as large as the Triangle.
In fact, the well-documented battle between neighbors and developers over the Triangle could be viewed as merely a warm-up for the TOD process. Only this time, the citizens will have "adversaries" city planners who actually share their goals; the haggling will come in the details, before developers can directly enter the picture. But those details are crucial.
It is no doubt a good sign that thus far neighborhood activists are merely trying to slow TOD down, not set up roadblocks; they usually start debates not with condemnation but qualifiers: "I support transit-oriented development, but ... ." In their ongoing discussions with planners, the neighborhoods in general seem to be saying, "Take a good idea and make it better."
If all goes according to the ideal plan, empty fields will become bustling hives of activity people strolling the sidewalks, window-shopping, eating in sidewalk cafes, perhaps working a hop, skip, and jump from where they live, and interacting with one another face to face instead of car to car. And of course, hopping on the train or the bus to head elsewhere. But within that overall plan, central-city neighborhoods walk a tighter rope: Will longtime residents and funky, Austin-defining business benefit? Or will this be like so many other development deals, benefiting only a few?
"I feel really strongly about the community getting the benefit of the public investment," said Liveable City board member and former City Council Member Brigid Shea at the Carver meeting. "It's our sales tax dollars that are building the rail line. It's a public investment in the things that increase the value of the property of these sites. And I think it's not something we should even be polite about I think we need to demand that the community get the value for the investment that the community is making."