Top 10 Developing Stories
1) Boom and Bust The Downtown skyline was transformed by rising condo towers. Hotel, office, and multiuse projects boomed as well – until the bust. Also hard hit were Austin's construction industry and retail and restaurants banking on all those condo yups. Will the Austonian – now rising toward 55 stories with more than 180 hyperpriced units – become the signature monument to 2008 boom-boom hubris? Or will it be the near-empty block directly across Congress Avenue that lost Las Manitas and now the Marriott?
2) Closure and Calm Projects ensnared in neighborhood-development battles reached amicable resolutions, notably the downsizing of both the Northcross Wal-Mart and the CWS condo towers proposed for the waterfront, fought by SaveTownLake.org. Yet no fresh fights erupted in 2008. Perhaps we're finally working together better as a city to head off divisive conflicts. Then again, maybe it was the recession – or Austin just got lucky.
3) Let's Call a Meeting! Austinites were invited to critique the teams for Project Green (the Green Water Treatment Plant) and the new library and to shape the streetcar rail alignment, evolution of Waller Creek, and Waterfront Overlay District. We chimed in on four large combined neighborhood plans, three station-area plans for transit-oriented developments, and the I-35 makeover. We ruminated master plans for the North Burnet/Gateway area, East Riverside Corridor, Barton Springs Pool, and Downtown. Those still standing tailored vertical-mixed-use rules to every neighborhood, negotiated energy-efficient home requirements, and rewrote planned unit development code. No one process has been perfect – but the city demonstrated octopus-quality outreach.
4) Rewriting Downtown Since delivering the Phase One Report in January, consultant ROMA has completed a streetcar alignment recommendation and a draft multimodal transportation plan; the team is working on affordable-housing and density-bonus programs. Still in development: Downtown Austin Plan Phase Two work: an overall framework, a parks and open space plan, and individual district plans.
5) Latest Ism Visits Congress for the New Urbanism brought national urban-design talent, and Central Texans (including some 50 city staffers) studied better, more sustainable city-shaping. Will CNU make a long-term difference in how Austin grows? We'll see – but it was a hell of a party.
6) Eastside Dilemma Frustration erupted once again over the Austin Revitalization Authority's endlessly lagging Urban Renewal plan. The city's consultants declared new Eastside housing now so expensive as to make 25% affordable housing within Eastside transit-oriented developments unfeasible. Yet Eastsiders defeated two low-income housing projects: Manor Road apartments planned by the Community Partnership for the Homeless and a gated mobile-home community proposed by Mobile Loaves and Fishes. Bright spots in the middle: Chestnut Commons, Homestead Preservation District progress, and Mueller affordable homes.
7) Brack Tract Backlash West Austin agonized over its own redevelopment quandaries, fueling town-gown tensions. In June, the University of Texas selected a master-planning consultant (Cooper, Robertson & Partners), which is dancing a razor's edge between pleasing its client and responding to neighborhood concerns. Thus far, UT evidences little commitment to being a good Austin citizen, instead asserting its own interests over collaborative solutions.
8) The Road to Community Development follows roads and transit. That truism informed this year's work on updating the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization long-range plan – potentially to promote denser and more sustainable land-use – via a new Decision Tree process for regional transportation investments. Thanks to Chair Kirk Watson, CAMPO will now apply that process – including environmental, air-quality, climate-protection, and quality-of-life standards – to roads. About freakin' time!
9) Rail Builds Steam Two new passenger rail projects left the station: the Green Line for the Austin-Manor-Elgin corridor and the Urban Rail Circulator, aka Central Austin streetcar. Meanwhile, Texas Department of Transportation highway financing hit a black-ice pothole, due to TxDOT's little $1 billion math error. Capital Metro's Phase I Green Line proposal won a Dec. 15 yes vote from the Transit Working Group; the city of Austin proposal goes before the group Jan. 5. In the new year: proposals for more passenger rail, financing plans, voter referendums, and opening Cap Metro's Red Line.
10) Stop Domain Subsidies Stopped The narrowly defeated anti-Domain Proposition 2 provided the latest community snapshot of longstanding citizen mistrust of elected officials and city staff – the perception that City Hall is in bed with developers. The new city manager and council members are trying to change that dynamic, with a renewed commitment to transparency. What will it take to truly build trust?