Developing Stories: May's Plan-a-Thon
Downtown, Waller Creek, PARD's boathouse ... "time and money"
On the urban design, master planning, and parks circuit, May has been a public-meetings whirl – so far, so good. Building trust – a major campaign pledge from Mayor-elect Lee Leffingwell – requires that the city and its consultants also close the communication loop by reporting back to citizens on how their input shaped final decisions. For City Hall, that's been the weak link. Will those who took the trouble to attend these May public meetings believe they've made a difference in the end?
Downtown Austin Plan
At a May 18 town hall meeting, ROMA Austin and economics subconsultant HR&A Advisors presented studies and policy recommendations for two key elements of the Downtown Austin Plan: affordable housing and a density bonus system to help pay for it. About 60 people attended the session on far-reaching policy recommendations. (By contrast, about twice that number attended the May 20 Brackenridge Tract presentation by the University of Texas master planning consultants – saying something about where the squeaky wheels live.) While affordable housing advocates and the anti-density Austin Neighborhoods Council crowd showed up May 18, no property owners or developers bothered – do they all assume they'll get private meetings at City Hall? And regrettably, there wasn't a single person of color in the crowd.
Overall, the consultants offered a reality check – a dash of cold water on community expectations that deeply affordable housing Downtown and a host of other benefits can be funded by a fat bankroll of developer contributions. After a detailed economic and market analysis, the consultants warned against pinning unrealistic hopes on a density bonus system – wherein a developer provides public benefits such as affordable housing in exchange for development entitlements such as greater height or density. The most sobering evidence: Landowners and developers aren't even using the base entitlements they can get now. So it's unlikely that they'll make substantial public-benefit contributions to earn more in the next five years. (The consultants presented again May 19 at a joint meeting of the Planning, Downtown, Design, Music, and Community Development commissions.)
HR&A Advisors principal John Alschuler reported that market research indicates a public-benefits fee of only $5 to $10 for each bonused square foot is viable – and for residential projects only. (Design secretary Bart Whatley later dissented: "We should require public benefits for all building types that seek additional entitlements.") Given the tremendous need to buy-down affordable housing in and near Downtown, the consultants recommended that the first 50% of additional density be obtainable only through affordable housing; the rest could be earned through green building, live music and cultural uses, historic preservation of the Warehouse District, family-friendly housing with more bedrooms, child- or elder-care facilities, and district-specific bonuses such as providing open space. In response to questions about why parks and open space hadn't been a higher priority, Alschuler and ROMA's Jana McCann said those needs are so important, they're getting a separate phase of work – a first Downtown Parks stakeholder meeting kicked off May 19 as well.
Waller Creek Master Plan
At a May 13 public meeting on the Waller Creek District Master Plan, ROMA Austin presented and gathered ideas for an overarching vision to a crowd of about 110 stakeholders. ROMA is optimistic about making Waller Creek "a transformative open space that brings the community together," pointing to the redo potential offered by 20 acres of parkland; numerous public properties owned by the city, county, state, and housing authority; and 26 acres of creek-side land ripe for redevelopment in the next 15 years. But a few incremental improvements won't cut it: The consultants stressed the need for a big, day-one, "transformative intervention" bold enough to transform the entire image and identity of the area.
The master plan is unfortunately playing catch-up to engineering work already under way. As the consultants noted, prior efforts (in 1976, 1998, and 2000) to realize the urban creek's potential failed to spur redevelopment. What's different this time around is the tunnel project, which brings land potentially ripe for redevelopment out of the floodplain, but a drainage tunnel in itself won't achieve a wonderful place that draws people and enhances Downtown.
For great Waller Creek place-making, ROMA recommends a holistic approach balancing three sets of values: ecological integrity, activity and vitality, and continuity/access (for bike/pedestrian routes). But any "above ground" improvements to emerge from the master plan, such as a new creek-side hike-and-bike trail, will need new pennies from heaven. (The exception is anything being dug up or torn down during tunnel construction, such as Waterloo Park and the Parks & Recreation Department's boathouse, which will be restored or replaced.) Tunnel financing was based on a projection that 7.2 million square feet of new development would occur within the tax-increment financing district (which includes a huge chunk of the Rainey Street area). With the economy tanked, those TIF assumptions now need to be revisited. On the other hand, if requested federal stimulus money is granted to help fund the tunnel project, it might become possible to restructure the TIF agreement to cover bike/ped improvements.
Also on May 19, the Austin chapter of the Congress for New Urbanism hosted a Cafe Urban discussion about a more inclusive concept for a new Parks & Recreation Department boathouse, sited where Waller Creek flows into Lady Bird Lake. That warmed up the PARD-sponsored public meeting on the same topic, which drew about 60 attendees, two-thirds of them Austin Rowing Club members. With encouragement from Council Member Sheryl Cole and PARD Director Sara Hensley, staff from Watershed Protection and Public Works participated in the meeting.
Some Austinites are now championing the opportunity to create a multiuse waterfront facility on the site, just east of the Four Seasons Hotel. It's at the intersection of two districts that prioritize the public realm: both the Waller Creek District and the waterfront overlay, for which guidelines calling for people-oriented, pedestrian waterfront uses and excellence in design are being reinstated. While Rowing Club members initially resisted changes to "our" boathouse, many accepted suggestions for adding trail-friendly amenities such as a drinking fountain and more public restrooms. Some also came to understand that a cafe or coffee bar, other concessions, other boating uses, and leasable spaces all might be necessary to make the public waterfront facility economically self-sustaining for both PARD and the Austin Rowing Club. For 20 years the private club has covered operating costs but paid no rent; under budget-crunched PARD's emerging new model, however, that will have to change. Unfortunately, the single-use boathouse design is already 70% complete, and the tunnel construction schedule is pressing hard and fast. As Public Works Project Manager Gary Jackson cheerfully put it, all these new ideas are great: "The only problems are time and money."
Downtown Austin Plan
Read the final drafts of the Density Bonus Program and Downtown Affordable Housing Strategy reports at www.cityofaustin.org/downtown.
Waller Creek Master Plan
See the Visioning Presentation at www.cityofaustin.org/wallercreek/development.htm.