On the Waterfront

As development accelerates along Town Lake, Austin faces urgent choices

On the Waterfront
Photo By Bret Brookshire

Readers may want to reference "The Big Picture Map" to locate Town Lake Corridor development projects.

In 1999, a proposed residential high-rise called the Gotham (later rechristened the Mirabeau) on the shores of Town Lake stirred up classic Austin neighborhood vs. developer sparring. For its relevance to the high-rise development pressures and urban-planning issues once again shaping up on Town Lake's central south shore, that battle is worth a quick 2007 revisit.

The Gotham was to be a 12-story, 120-foot high-rise, with 56 condos sited on the hike-and-bike trail between the Hyatt Regency and the Congress Avenue Bridge. (With the 44-story 360 Condominiums now rising Downtown, the Gotham sounds rather modest.) Reviled by the Austin Neighborhoods Council and others, the flashy high-rise Gotham, by, yuck, a Houston developer, represented everything that South Austin chose not to become. To rationalize killing off the ugly and unpopular condo tower, then-City Council Member Beverly Griffith and her colleagues directed the city to commission a planning study.

ROMA Design Group, the city's favored urban planners, duly labored with a citizen task force to study and recommend updated guidelines for the South Shore Central area (a subdistrict of the Waterfront Overlay District, within which the shoreline of Town Lake and its contributory creeks is protected by ordinance from development). "The underutilized and aging nature of the area makes it prime for redevelopment and revitalization," noted ROMA. The study's explicit objective was "to develop binding development standards that can be incorporated into the Land Development Code" – but its recommendations were never adopted by City Council (see "ROMA Report"). Instead, they were shelved as soon as the report "did its job," according to a council member from that era – that is, it provided a rationale to scale back the controversial project. (A shrunken Mirabeau was approved at council in June 2000 but never built.)

To achieve ROMA's redevelopment vision, the area's many private property owners would have had to agree on, fund, and build a new grid of streets, parking garages, and pedestrian-friendly streetscapes. Forcing that collaboration and buy-in would have required serious political will and steely urban-planning resolve on the part of the city – an effort far larger than the pro-neighborhood Griffith-Goodman-Slusher council ever really wanted to take on. No doubt with some relief, when the economy and development market nosedived in 2001 (taking the pesky Mirabeau down with them), council let the ROMA plan quietly drop from view.

Everything's in Play

Fast-forward to November 2006: In the same South Shore Central subdistrict – across the river from Downtown – development pressures, battles, and opportunities have heated up again, and far more intensively. "We're on a roll here," said Stuart Strong, assistant director of the Parks and Recreation Department and a 30-year veteran of Town Lake planning. "We're in one of those booms now, and for the first time in 40 or 50 years, there is now noticeable development on Town Lake – for the first time since Town Lake was created."

With limited sites suitable for building tall residential towers in the Central Business District, every developer worth his Suburban is cruising privately owned tracts along the shores of Town Lake. "My guess would be that everything of a sufficient size is in play," said Downtown Commission member Robert Knight, himself a player in the Waterfront District springing up on Town Lake's north shore (the old Rainey Street neighborhood, now zoned CBD). "If it's big enough to be an economically viable project, somebody's knocking on their door."

Today's City Council is comparatively more engaged with urban planning, especially promoting Downtown density. And in 2007, after seeing redeveloped areas such as the 2nd Street District, local developers now better understand the economic benefits to their projects of larger-scale urban planning, notes city planner Michael Knox. This month, ROMA is embarking on a Downtown Master Plan, to be completed by year's end; the intention is to develop binding new development standards that can be incorporated into code and thus given the force of law. With multiple large-scale Town Lake projects in the city approvals pipeline (see "The Big Picture Map"), many see a pressing need – once again – for a cohesive, perhaps New Urbanist, plan to guide redevelopment of the privately owned land along Town Lake. In this climate, suddenly the ROMA study and recommendations are of fresh interest to developers, city planners, council members, and the city boards and commissions that grant variances to developers. "It would certainly be worth going back to the ROMA study or something like it," said Knox of the South Shore Central area. As he sees the challenge today: "What are the trade-offs for getting better development, and preserving the corridor, but not at the expense of no development?"

The central area – between South First and I-35 and between Town Lake and Riverside Drive (plus East Bouldin Creek) – represents one of two long stretches of privately owned land on Town Lake's south shore. The other stretch lies just east of the interstate, within the new East Riverside/Oltorf Combined Neighborhood Plan; it also is now spawning major new redevelopment projects, primarily residential. (Notable among them are Star Riverside, an 11-story condo project at Riverside and I-35; AMLI Town Lake at Riverside and Lakeshore Boulevard, with 10,000 square feet of retail topped by residential; and the Lakeshore PUD on Lakeshore, described as a high-density urban village.) Largely inaccessible to the public, these two stretches of privately owned shoreline make up the 2-mile "Riverside gap" in the 10-mile loop of Town Lake Trail – a gap many trail users and parkland advocates would dearly love to close.

Town Lake Trail Boardwalk:  On the south shore of Town Lake, a 14-foot-wide boardwalk built on piers over the water is under consideration (along inaccessible or privately owned stretches). The boardwalk could make the Town Lake Trail an 11.25-mile, unbroken loop around the lake; currently users must jog over to streets along the nearly 2-mile Riverside gap. A cheaper alternative: Convince landowners to deed shoreline easements (Parks Department rendering).
Town Lake Trail Boardwalk: On the south shore of Town Lake, a 14-foot-wide boardwalk built on piers over the water is under consideration (along inaccessible or privately owned stretches). The boardwalk could make the Town Lake Trail an 11.25-mile, unbroken loop around the lake; currently users must jog over to streets along the nearly 2-mile Riverside gap. A cheaper alternative: Convince landowners to deed shoreline easements (Parks Department rendering).

A city most often motivated to do urban planning in a crisis, Austin was initially spurred to limit development on Town Lake in the Eighties in response to public outcry over the 1984 Hyatt Regency, the first – and to date, the only – high-rise sited directly on the south shore of Town Lake. Development regulations for the Waterfront Overlay District were adopted as ordinance in 1989. Its protections extend to the shoreline land along tributary creeks feeding into Town Lake: Barton, Bouldin, Shoal, Blunn. As the ordinance states, "The purpose of the Waterfront Overlay is to promote the harmonious interaction and transition between urban development and the park land and shoreline of Town Lake and the Colorado River."

The development regulations in the code are largely based on the city's last holistic planning vision – the 1985 Town Lake Corridor Study, which led to the 1987 Town Lake Comprehensive Plan, on which the ordinance was based. But as the ROMA study noted, "There is concern that the provisions of the City of Austin Land Development Code and Waterfront Overlay District are not adequate to guide development in a way that will fully achieve the goals of the Town Lake Corridor Study." That's still true. An equally valid concern is whether the vision of that 20-year-old study is a vision that Austin remains committed to today or whether it may need updating.

The appeal of Town Lake and the hike-and-bike trail near Downtown is important not just to local joggers and rowers but to the city's tourism business, convention business, and economic-development efforts as well. As a major lifestyle amenity in the central city, Town Lake is a boon for attracting all of the above, including major new employers. In its publication "The Benefits of Parks," the Trust for Public Land cites an abundance of evidence showing the public health, social, environmental, and economic benefits of inner-city parks. For example, after Bryant Park in New York was revitalized, rents for commercial office space nearby increased 115-225%, compared with 41-71% for comparable surrounding submarkets. (Developers, take heed.) And after Dallas lost a new Boeing Co. corporate headquarters to Chicago in 2001, in part due to quality-of-life issues, Dallas finally moved to "dramatically expand new parks and open spaces" downtown. An initial step was a fresh downtown parks master plan. (Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, take note.)

Shoreline Watchdog: Applications invited

With new, rapid-fire development pressures and opportunities occurring on Town Lake, the Town Lake Corridor Study is worth a fresh read, since it offers the rationale for the current WO District code. Its final "Summary and Implementation" section contains "action priorities" that are – somewhat embarrassingly – as in need of attention in 2006 as they were in 1986. A final section on "Future Planning" reads:

"This study has demonstrated the urgency for a long-range comprehensive planning program, one that will recognize the significance of Town Lake and its waterfront qualities as the centerpiece for future development. A systems planning approach is essential; single planning for roadways or parks or development projects will only exacerbate the complex problems now emerging. In this regard, Town Lake could become the catalyst for superior urban design, influencing not only the image and personality of lower downtown, but the Corridor as well."

Yet completing the "urgent" big-picture vision – the "long-range comprehensive planning" and "systems planning" and "superior urban design" called for – still remains on Austin's to-do list, two decades later. While there's consensus that both ends of the Town Lake Corridor, as a natural setting for the hike-and-bike trail and as public parkland, should remain green, it's less clear what Austin's goal should be for Town Lake's urban middle. Should it be a soft, natural oasis? Or should Austin develop a Downtown waterfront entertainment district, as many other cities have done? Architect Sinclair Black has suggested that the city treat the developed tracts on the south shore (the privately owned land between Zilker Park and Longhorn Dam, from the river back to Riverside/Barton Springs Road) as part of Downtown. He'd like to see the whole area rezoned CBD to permit taller, mixed-use buildings and redeveloped with a grid of streets breaking up the huge industrial tracts. "Within 10 years, that area would look like a real city," said Black.

Unfortunately, judging from numerous recent interviews, few guiding the city's planning and development process in 2007 know exactly what's described or proposed in the Town Lake Corridor Study and WO Ordinance – although there's been a recent scramble to get up to speed. (Neighborhood activists often are equally blurry on the specifics.) For example, not everyone understands that the ordinance specifies both primary and secondary setbacks and bans all buildings larger than a gazebo within both setbacks. (For the area it studied, ROMA suggested perhaps trading in this system for minimum and average setback requirements.) And contrary to popular belief, building heights are not limited by the current WO Ordinance; rather, height restrictions are set by the general zoning in place (and those vary greatly, tract to tract, along the waterfront). The ordinance is long, complicated, and confusing, in part because the WO District is divided into 16 subdistricts – each of which has its own distinct building setback requirements, design standards, building base-wall heights, and provisions for prohibited, conditional, and pedestrian-oriented uses. Pity the poor city-planning commissioner or council member who must master the nuances relevant to each individual project requesting variances that appears on an agenda (see "Death by a Thousand Waivers").

(During the meeting at which council voted on the Mirabeau, members struggled with the confusing floor-to-area ratio formula that limits building size. Asked what the neighborhood would support, a citizen responded, "F.A.R.? Man, I ain't no expert on F.A.R.s." Former Mayor Kirk Watson laughingly concurred: "I think we ought to have that put on a plaque and hung on the wall behind us.")

The Parks and Recreation Department has authority over city parkland along Town Lake, according to Strong, but not over privately owned land – that is, the sites where development is actually occurring. As a result, the department has never been able to effectively incorporate redevelopment opportunities and activity into its planning process. If Parks opposes a large-scale development adjacent to parkland within the WO area, it lacks the power to stop a private project or make it conform to city code. While Parks director Warren Struss and his staff review the site plan for a proposed WO development, their recommendation is not binding on project approvals.

On alert: South River City Citizens, Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association, and Austin Neighborhoods Council. Front row: (l-r) Sarah Campbell (SRCC), Brooks Kasson (SRCC), Ingrid Weigand, (BCNA), Cory Walton (BCNA, ANC). Back row: (l-r) Kenny Hilbig (SRCC), Kathie Tovo (BCNA), Wendy Price Todd (SRCC), Bo McCarver (ANC), Danette Chimenti (SRCC, ANC), Claudette Lowe (SRCC)
On alert: South River City Citizens, Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association, and Austin Neighborhoods Council. Front row: (l-r) Sarah Campbell (SRCC), Brooks Kasson (SRCC), Ingrid Weigand, (BCNA), Cory Walton (BCNA, ANC). Back row: (l-r) Kenny Hilbig (SRCC), Kathie Tovo (BCNA), Wendy Price Todd (SRCC), Bo McCarver (ANC), Danette Chimenti (SRCC, ANC), Claudette Lowe (SRCC) (Photo By John Anderson)

Even if Austin did have a clear, cohesive plan for Town Lake, it's not clear who would implement it. Austin has no centralized oversight of the whole Town Lake Corridor, from Tom Miller Dam at the west end to Longhorn Dam at the east end. No single city office is deputized to protect the public interest for both public and private shoreline land. Currently, city staff spread among numerous offices are responsible for small pieces of the Town Lake puzzle; they must address multiple, interlocking issues on a fragmented basis. To ensure adequate protection and a cohesive approach, what the city seems to need, but lacks, is a Town Lake Corridor czar – or at least a single department charged with monitoring and managing the corridor.

As the saying goes, when it's everyone's job, it's no one's job.

Neighborhood Fights

Insecurity over the city's commitment to Town Lake – and apprehension that, on a piecemeal basis, it will cave to developer variance requests – has left neighborhood associations to fight (sometimes in knee-jerk fashion) every major development on Town Lake. Individual neighborhoods rally opposition to big, bad projects in their areas but wish the city took a more comprehensive stand. This is hardly a new problem. In 1999, during the fight over the Gotham, the then-president of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association, Gary Hyatt (no relation to the hoteliers), told the Chronicle, "The Hyatt [hotel] was supposedly going to be the last big project allowed on the lake. It's not a South Austin problem; it's a city problem. That was the original battle to preserve Town Lake park – to preserve it for everybody."

New nonprofit group SaveTownLake.org, "Austinites for the Responsible Development of the Town Lake Corridor," has just organized around the mission to protect Town Lake and the corridor. (A Jan. 6 fundraiser at Antone's sold out its 700 tickets and turned away another 600 at the door – credit public passion for Town Lake or for headliners the Flatlanders.) Members advocate for strong adherence to the Waterfront Overlay Ordinance, "to maintain the integrity of the Town Lake Corridor for all of Austin" (www.savetownlake.org). Last April, the Austin Neighborhoods Council adopted a resolution to provide a citywide voice on the issue. The resolution states:

"Be it resolved that the Austin Neighborhoods Council strongly urges the Austin City Council to recommit to protecting the Town Lake corridor and Town Lake Park by affirming that public parkland will not be used for private purposes, and that new development along the river corridor will have to conform to the zoning and overlay ordinances which prohibit intrusive development along the waterfront and adjacent to parkland."

South River City Citizens – the neighborhood association that has taken the lead on protesting the condo towers at 222 and 300 E. Riverside – and the Bouldin Creek NA – which appears to have successfully protested WO variances for condo towers planned for the infamous Hyatt hotel site – have expressed concern that the value and importance of the Waterfront Overlay District protections have been forgotten. In October, SRCC member Sarah Campbell (recently retired as a senior planner with Parks) sent an open letter titled "Close to Outrage" to the mayor, all council members, all planning commissioners, and other city leadership suggesting that the protections in the ordinance are being willfully ignored, to serve developer interests. (See Campbell's letter, in the Nov. 24, 2006 issue.)

While activists want the city to "just say no" to all Waterfront Overlay variance requests, in the long run the best solution for privately owned tracts could be a solid redevelopment plan that integrates landowner, neighborhood, and city interests. If the city could move from a reactive to a proactive stance, council members and planning commissioners wouldn't have to sit late into the night wrestling with F.A.R.s and setback intricacies on every individual proposed project. As principal planner Michael Knox puts it, "We shouldn't be doing urban planning from the dais."

Developers aren't inevitably the enemies of Town Lake. In fact, Austin very much needs them to get involved. Especially for areas like the South Shore Central subdistrict and the East Riverside subdistrict, engaging landowners and next-generation developers committed to good urban design is essential. "The private sector needs to 'recycle' this land – you need the private sector to help you invest in this area," said Jim Adams, principal for ROMA on its 2000 study.

A key point: Waterfront land in private hands will become accessible to the public – as open space and/or to complete the hike-and-bike trail – only as tracts are redeveloped. Within the Waterfront Overlay District, existing buildings close to the shoreline (such as the Seventies apartment buildings at 222 and 300 E. Riverside) were grandfathered in. The building setbacks written into code – which vary by area, with most at 100 to 200 feet – apply only to new construction. So true advocates of public open space should embrace inspired redevelopment that can open up shoreline land to everyone and help complete the Town Lake Trail.

First Street at Town Lake, looking northwest
First Street at Town Lake, looking northwest (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

Another solution with great promise being forwarded by Parks is a more proactive use of city parkland-dedication provisions. Right now, the WO Ordinance asserts a public interest in preserving waterfront land as open space, with public access. But here's the rub: The city can't force public uses on private land. If Austin wants guaranteed public access to the entire Town Lake shoreline – to complete the hike-and-bike trail and/or prevent waterfront towers – then the only sure solution would be for the city to acquire the shoreline portion of all Town Lake waterfront tracts as parkland. Both PARD and the Town Lake Trail Foundation also are pursuing the idea of an over-the-water boardwalk, to close the Riverside gap. Having this alternative in its back pocket strengthens the city's bargaining power with developers – like CWS Capital Properties, at 222 and 300 E. Riverside – who are trying to demand setback variances in exchange for extending the trail on their land. Knowledgeable city staffers like Knox and Stuart Strong say the city is unlikely ever to "take" the land through condemnation proceedings – wildly unpopular in property-rights Texas, not to mention wildly expensive.

Looking for Models

But the city can, and already does, require landowners citywide to dedicate parkland on tracts under residential development. And parkland is exactly what's needed. Right now, the parkland-dedication requirement applies only to subdivided land. But according to Strong, PARD is actively forwarding a change to the Land Development Code to create greater equity by making the requirement (to dedicate land on-site and/or, at PARD's discretion, pay an in-lieu impact fee) applicable to all residential development. "The tool of parkland dedication has a lot of potential," said Strong with enthusiasm. "Once we clear up the loophole [that exempts nonsubdivided lots], it will be a very effective tool" for acquiring parkland on each waterfront lot that gets redeveloped with dense housing.

"We can make the case that cities have the right to impact fees," noted Strong, citing Texas case law: "The courts have upheld the principle that the more people you bring in, the more you owe to the public." Strong foresees the proposed amendment reaching the council within a few months. And judging from initial responses, at least some council members are amenable.

The most proactive solution would be for the city to pursue a comprehensive public waterfront redevelopment or preservation initiative, as other cities have done around the country. (In the Town Lake Corridor Study, city acquisition of privately owned properties to reclaim the waterfront, with innovative purchase and lease-back financing, was listed as a 1986 "action priority.") If the city (and a longer shot, South Austin) were to embrace development of a south shore waterfront shopping-and-entertainment district – perhaps Austin's funkier answer to the San Antonio Riverwalk – public involvement and funding would have to be extensive, along the lines of the 2nd Street District.

A funding tool used by other cities nationally for waterfront revitalization is a waterfront taxing district. Assessments within the tax increment financing district fund public investments; the private properties taxed benefit as their values are enhanced by the improvements in their district. (Austin is seeking a partnership with the county to create a TIF district to fund the revitalization of Waller Creek, including the tunnel and its shoreline parks Downtown.) If the city chooses to enact an updated version of the ROMA recommendations for the South Shore Central area, for example, a TIF potentially could fund the new infrastructure of streets, Great Streets amenities, parking garages, and so forth, required for that vision.

Examples of other cities using this tool include Burlington, Vt., which financed its waterfront revitalization partially through a TIF approved by voters in 1996, for a Waterfront Urban Renewal District. In 2006 alone, TIFs for waterfront district revitalization were enacted in Knoxville, Tenn., and Belfast, Minn. Earl Broussard, principal of TBG Partners (the firm now completing Phase I of Town Lake Park, by the Palmer Events Center), suggested that in Austin, a TIF assessed on private property within or adjacent to the WO District could fund the purchase and maintenance of Town Lake Corridor land as public park space and the completion of the trail.

Whether the city would take such an initiative remains to be seen. But before there's anything to finance, Austin still needs a clear plan backed by force of zoning code – and the political will to adhere to it.

"I do think we're doing a lot better than we have in the past," said Brewster McCracken, the current council's most vocal urban-planning advocate. "The city's missed opportunity to adopt the ROMA plan [for Town Lake], and the 2222 corridor plan, has fundamentally altered the way we handle these plans now. We're now requiring them to come to council with implementable code – nuts-and-bolts zoning code that has the force of law – so that we can take an immediate vote on adoption." The ROMA study noted of the south shore, "The community has clearly stated that this subdistrict should be viewed as a transitional area rather than an extension of the downtown." McCracken concurred, though like others interviewed last November, he hadn't actually (re)read the ROMA study. ("We can't even find it!") He expressed concern that transit planning would need to be part of denser development on the south shore. "Most likely we'll be seeing requests for heights of 120 feet. But what responsibilities come with that?" he asked. McCracken said that as the city proceeds to do neighborhood and corridor plans (which cost around $200,000), "It's obviously the next one on the list."

"I don't think there's any interest in revisiting the Waterfront Overlay," said McCracken of the current council. "It's one of our best urban-planning achievements. One of the most remarkable things about Austin, from an urban-planning perspective, is how we've treated the lakefront. It's an unusual approach, and I think it's really fantastic – we've gone with more of a nature linkage on our urban waterfront. Most cities do more of a hard edge, an urban edge. But I like the character Town Lake has now, and I think most Austinites do."

In its call for the revival of the urban parks movement, the Trust for Public Land asserts, "We can create the green oases that offer refuge from the alienating city streets – places where we can rediscover our natural roots and reconnect with our souls." In the end, that's the reason Austinites love and want to protect the open space around Town Lake. As a salve to the urban soul, nothing beats watching the river flow. end story

Visit www.ci.austin.tx.us/parks/parks.htm for links to the 2000 ROMA Austin Town Lake Corridor Study, the Town Lake Corridor Study, and maps and descriptions of the Waterfront Overlay subdistricts. City code pertaining to the Waterfront Overlay District includes 13-2-160(a,b), Ordinance 990225-70, Ordinance 990715-115, and Ordinance 031211-11.

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Town Lake, Hyatt hotel, Austin Neighborhoods Council, ROMA Design Group, Waterfront Overlay District, Stuart Strong, Parks and Recreation Department, Robert Knight, Michael Knox, Downtown Master Plan, Town Lake Corridor Study, Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association, SaveTownLake.org, South River City Citizens, Jim Adams, Town Lake Trail Foundation, Brewster McCracken

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