Design Standards

All Mixed Up

As Will Wynn likes to say, it's not a question of if Austin will grow, but how. For the converted New Urbanists at City Hall, the shining City on a Hill (or, in this case, the gleaming bench on the sidewalk) is Downtown's Second Street, that eclectic mix of shops, restaurants, and residences buoyed by the AMLI condominiums. Second Street, and the Guadalupe 31 mixed-use development near UT, says Brewster McCracken, "are examples of the development type that's going to become common on our major thoroughfares." The City Council's about to make that happen, with a set of commercial design standards that they'll consider on first reading this week.

A little background: In early 2004, realizing the city had no overarching design guidelines, council convened a task force to create recommendations. McCracken took an active role in steering the committee, comprising stakeholders from the Austin Neighborhoods Council, the real-estate lobby, urban-planning org Liveable City, and the Design and Planning commissions. The committee's policy report has now been converted into implementable standards, by Denver-based Clarion Associates (which, incidentally, will perform the same task for the McMansion ordinance). Basically, the design standards and mixed-use ordinance can be broken into three main components:

Design Standards

Site Development Standards

Sidewalks, pedestrian connectivity, parking, lighting, and more.

"We faced a fundamental choice between an urban style, with more mixed use, and a more suburban style," McCracken says. "The way we were able to breach that gap is to identify the streets that should be more pedestrian friendly." In doing so, the Design Commission defined differing street types (see "When Is a Road a Corridor?"), each with specific requirements; for instance, "Core Transit Corridor" sidewalks require trees, while "Roadway" sidewalks don't. To facilitate foot traffic, block size is decreased, and buildings must sit close to the street, with parking to the side or back. For larger projects, and developments that can't or won't meet the criteria, the city requires other forms of connectivity and sustainability; these include trails and walkways, parking shaded by solar panels, or on-site showers for sweaty bike commuters. Common open spaces are also to be included in larger developments, while aesthetic considerations include hiding trash bins and mechanical equipment from view and incorporating loading docks and infrastructure into the architecture.

Building Design Standards

Features of the building itself.

Large windows and panes of glazing are required on a building's front, and 70% of the frontage should have a shade structure. Offices and vertical mixed-use buildings are exempt from additional design improvements; large developments and smaller ones with "trademarked design features" (i.e., the Golden Arches and their ilk) must implement architectural detailing in their facades or rooftops, comply with Green Building standards, add a sustainable (solar, vegetated, rainwater collecting, etc.) roof, or employ other options. The requirements apply only to buildings whose facades face the roadway and are easily accessible to the public.

Mixed-Use Standards

Residential, office, and retail uses within a single, pedestrian-oriented structure or district.

The ordinance's cornerstone is a new zoning classification: VMU, or vertical mixed use. Current mixed-use zoning allows for different uses in one building or district but doesn't require residential space. Therefore, "mixed-use zoning has grown very unpopular with neighborhoods," says McCracken. VMU is a brand-new zoning requiring residential. "We're focusing density on the corridors with pedestrian-friendly amenities. It's the most important section of this whole ordinance and the most complete implementation of Envision Central Texas in this region."

Under Vertical Mixed-Use zoning, uses on the ground level 
must differ from the upper floors, and at least one floor 
should be devoted to residential use.
Under Vertical Mixed-Use zoning, uses on the ground level must differ from the upper floors, and at least one floor should be devoted to residential use.

"Major arterials are going to look a lot different here in five years," says McCracken, but at what price? In the name of "mixed use" and "new urbanism," the eclecticism of sites like Second Street often spells expense. Rather than exasperating chic development and steep prices, McCracken contends the ordinance strives to balance density goals with affordability. By focusing growth along major corridors and away from neighborhoods, the hope is to keep taxes affordable on single-family homes. But, "affordability doesn't happen organically," McCracken says. "It is untrue that the market produces affordability due to supply." Therefore, 10% of VMU rental properties must be set at 80% median family income. Ten percent might not sound like much, but McCracken says the neighbors can set lower MFI if they wish, and the 10% reserve can double with city assistance, if the developer desires. "As density comes," he says, "we don't want to turn into San Francisco – a great urban environment for rich people."

Design Standards

When Is a Road a Corridor?

Core Transit Corridors: Roads with a "population density, mix of users, and transit facilities to encourage and support transit use," i.e., the city's major thoroughfares. Examples include Airport, Guadalupe, South Congress, and Riverside.

Urban Roadways: Those roads in the central city other than the CTCs. "Guadalupe, for instance, would be a core transit corridor," says Brewster McCracken, "while 24th Street or Speedway would be an urban roadway."

Suburban Roadways: Streets outside urban roadway boundaries, which aren't core transit corridors, highways, urban roadways, or hill country roads (streets within 1,000 feet of FM 2222, FM 2244, FM 620, Loop 360, and Southwest Parkway).

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commercial design standards, new urbanism, Brewster McCracken, Liveable City

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