The Austin Chronicle

Top 10 Developing Stories: We got a plan

By Katherine Gregor, January 5, 2007, News

1) No More Cheap and Ugly: New ordinance adopted in August (effective Jan. 13) codifies design standards for new commercial and mixed-use developments: better architectural design, site layout, streetscapes, landscaping, green building, and general not-so-ugliness. In Central Austin, the standards promote denser, transit-friendly development along more than 50 miles of urban corridors.

2) Mueller Arising: After just 20 years of planning, the new city-within-a-city finally began to take shape on the site of the old airport – a model of what results from progressive urban planning, meaningful community involvement, and a developer (Catellus) actually caring about doing the right thing. The city ought to make study and emulation of Mueller a required course for other large-scale developers (e.g., Lincoln Property Co.) changing the face of our town.

3) Second (Street) Chances: Stop kvetching that the 2nd Street Retail District looks like Dallas – think of it as a slice of San Francisco. Okay, the boutiques and eateries are a tad froufrou, but what's happening here is deeper than shopping. When it's completed, the new Second Street will serve as the Great Street "pedestrian spine" that links City Hall and the Convention Center complex, all the way across Downtown. Wake up and smell the brew at Jo's Hot Coffee, now the mingling spot for City Hall shakers.

4) Smarter Housing: Villas on Sixth grandly opened in May as a model of low-income rental housing – an East Austin infill development near Downtown (1900 E. Sixth) and a public-private venture. It digs deep into affordability; of the 160 apartments, 86 are for folks with incomes at 50% or less of the area median and another 60 at just 40%. Melded in are retail and a YMCA with afterschool care, a computer learning center, swim and dance lessons, and teen nights. Way better than raising kids in a "project."

5) Back to the Track!: Construction of the urban commuter rail line connecting Leander (and points between) with Downtown Austin began in March, with the first train (to the Convention Center) scheduled for 2008. Sleeping at the wheel have been the transit planners for inner-city circulators, needed to service commuters as well as all of that projected "desirable density." Cap Metro, the city, the state, and the universities need to get a streetcar system (or some alternative) actively moving ahead in 2007.

6) No More Supersizing! ... Of new homes in established neighborhoods, or so provides the new "McMansion" ordinance passed unanimously in September – over many doubts about its impacts and politics. In theory, the ordinance tries to protect neighborhood character by limiting the size of new double-patty "McMansions" next door to older, smaller homes. Boon to community or doom to density? Time will tell.

7) Mine's Bigger Than Yours: The braggin' rights for Tallest Condo Tower became a fast-flipping honor, as Downtown housing went sky-high (in price, too). First was the 360 Condominiums (44 stories and 580 feet, 360 Nueces, 2008 opening). Also announced was a 47-story, 675-foot residential-and-office tower (Fifth and Congress). Spring Condominiums will rise a mere 36 stories and 400 feet (Third and Bowie), but its west-side location and height zoning variances (over nearby neighborhood objections) made the tower a lightning rod for the new Downtown.

8) If You Build It: Where roads go, development follows, and TxDOT's opening of a 40-mile segment of SH 130 opens up a whole new swath of Central Texas for dense development. Good news if it draws growth away from the Edwards Aquifer and adheres to regional planning principles; bad if it fosters the usual hideous highway sprawl. Don't repeat I-35. (See Commercial Design Standards, above.)

9) Bikeway Begins: The long-discussed project finally went out for bids and officially got named for hometown hero Lance Armstrong. Segments east and west of Downtown should start construction early this year; holding up the Downtown portions has been a conflict with Capital Metro rail lines. The Bikeway will start at Highway 183 near the Colorado River, run west through East Austin and Downtown, then dip down to Cesar Chavez, and terminate near Deep Eddy pool just west of MoPac. Ready your tire pump!

10) TODs A'Coming?: They're still more visionary than vision, but the Transit-Oriented Development Zones intended to connect commuter rail with inner-city mass transit got off the drawing boards at last this year, dotting the to-do map from Northwest to the Eastside. It will be years before we know whether all the pieces came together for a new, metropolitan Austin – but 2006 could be the year when the balance finally tipped for progress.

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