Top 10 Developing Stories

Lessons Learned

1) Developers Pay Up 2007 will be remembered as the year Austin raised its standards for the public benefits we expect from the private interests that shape our city. What's new: No developer dared ask for a major height/density variance from council in 2007 without first offering up "voluntary" contributions for the public good. A series of City Council-backed initiatives this year signals a real if nascent culture shift: the density-bonus initiative, affordable-housing fees-in-lieu, expanded park-dedication fees, stronger urban design standards, etc. Lesson learned: Economic development alone no longer punches a developer's ticket.

2) Densifying Downtown The urban fabric became more tightly woven this year: high-rising towers, livelier streetscapes and nightlife, scarcer parking, some 2,600 new condos under construction (median asking price $800,000) and another 2,300 planned. Most City Hall newsy: The spat over Capitol View Corridors, $124 million in new flood controls for Waller Creek, the Second Street retail district, density as climate protection, and a 2008 referendum for Downtown rail transit. Most crucial: completing Phase I of the Downtown Austin Plan, as a comprehensive road map. Lesson learned: Growth is a given; the question now is quality.

3) Climate Protection With the watershed 2007 passage of the Austin Climate Protec­tion Plan, the city moved to require green building and energy efficiency, with more stringent new construction standards each year. Buyers of some older houses will need to make energy-efficiency improvements. Smart developers are embracing higher standards, because in Austin, green sells. Lesson learned: Austinites will pay for buildings that work for climate protection.

4) Las Manitas Saga This twisting tale epitomized the struggle to preserve Austin's unique character – and the community's angst over change. When City Council rose to defend the iconic Downtown Tex-Mex eatery against the Marriott hotel chain, our elected officials appeared noble champions of keeping Austin weird, but when they offered up a $750,000 forgivable loan, public opinion turned ugly. Las Manitas' owners reclaimed folk-hero status by finally rejecting the city's loan – then struck their own deal with the landowner/developer. Still uncertain: the fates of both the planned trihotel complex and the taco joint. Lesson learned: We're weird all right.

5) Northcross Mall, RG4N, and Big Box The (continuing) fight over Northcross Mall's redevelopment – as New Urbanist town center or a dumb mall with gargantuan Wal-Mart? – has been a painful lesson in how much civic grief one bad developer can inflict. Also exposed: lack of council consensus, staff's power to subvert council policy, and city weaknesses in urban planning. Silver lining: In the uproar, the Big Box ordinance passed (to prevent future such debacles). Lesson learned: Council has shown notably more fortitude and leadership in championing good development.

6) Rally Around the River Lady Bird Lake (née Town Lake) saw a 2007 outpouring of citizen love. Everyone from Jimmie Dale Gilmore to the mayor sang out for protection, plus trail improvements and completion (with a boardwalk?). New nonprofit led a populist rally against developers seeking variances for tall towers on the shoreline. Council (led by Mike Martinez) listened, got out in front, and vocally opposed on principle one-off variances to Waterfront Overlay District protections – then reinstated a WO task force. Still pending: the lightning-rod CWS project that kicked it all off. Lesson learned: Austinites love their river, and council can do the righteous thing.

7) Concordia Concord The frustrating discord over redevelopment of Concordia Univer­sity's 22-acre central campus exhausted all parties involved. An intelligent, detailed ROMA Design Group site plan finally achieved consensus among neighborhood associations, city officials and staff, and developer East End IG – where adversarial lawyers and positions had failed. Citizens beseeched council to create a better process. Lesson learned: Council moved to draft new, higher standards (now largely completed) for planned unit developments.

8) New Transit Town Two major new public planning processes began in 2007 to better align development patterns with transit corridors and rail. For the new vertical mixed-use zoning: Neighborhoods across Austin reviewed and recommended how (and where) the city should promote desired density. For transit-oriented development: Station Area Planning was largely completed along Capital Metro's new commuter-rail line. In November, Mayor Wynn called for a 2008 voter referendum for a modern central-city streetcar. Lesson learned: Austin is finally getting on board with pro-transit cities like Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; and even Dallas.

9) UT's Brackenridge Tract Another hefty chunk of old Central Austin was put on the block, eliciting more neighborhood and city pleas for enlightened urban planning. This time, the self-interested "greedy developer" is UT-Austin. The tract's 345 acres include Lions Municipal Golf Course, which the city dearly wants to keep – but UT has barely given the city's planning wishes a polite nod. The town-and-gown power wrangle is sure to be fascinating; the city may discover what it feels like to be a placated-yet-powerless neighborhood association. Lesson learned: Beware of the Big Gorilla.

10) Downtown North The upscale Domain retail/restaurant/residential site is the first phase of a 10-year plan to transform the old IBM campus at MoPac and 183 into a walkable, New Urbanist "second downtown." Upon adoption of the North Burnet/Gateway Area Master Plan, the area should become our eighth official transit-oriented development district to follow the quality-critical three Ds: density, diversity, and design. Lesson learned: Growing Austin well requires high-quality planning and urban design – in the burbs, too.

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More by Katherine Gregor
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