City Hall Hustle: Riding the Riverside Rail
Which comes first, the train or the passengers?
The City Council members must similarly consider themselves restrained, hopefully not because they're constrained in the midst of a city-crippling, record-breaking snowstorm (ah, but a man can dream), but because, with so many disparate items on the agenda this week (Thursday, Feb. 25), it must be a struggle to stay focused on the tasks at hand.
Not until the end of the meeting, as part of a 4pm public hearing, may be the item with the furthest-reaching implications: approval of the East Riverside Corridor Master Plan. An addition to the currently being reworked Austin Tomorrow Comprehensive Plan, the city's designs on Riverside signal the storied drive's importance to infill development and urban rail. While no route's been set in stone, it has long been thought that a trek down Riverside to the airport would be a chief feature of urban rail. And for rail to be successful, density is necessary around rail stations to attract and increase ridership and make the whole endeavor a financial as well as transit success.
Capital Metro, which may or may not have anything to do with urban rail, recognizes this; in a letter to the Planning Commission, the agency notes that its biggest concern with the plan may be that it's insufficiently dense. While "overall, this plan would create urban walkable neighborhoods that can be well-served by transit," Cap Metro worries about an "apparent mismatch between the transit and the density of development," and more specifically, "the draft plan appears to entitle less density than is needed for efficient transit." For service to be effective quickly, the agency suggests a minimum density of 30 dwelling units per acre in the area surrounding each rail stop along Riverside.
So what did the Planning Commission do with this information? It banded together unanimously ... to reaffirm the importance of compatibility standards, the setback requirements, building heights and the like in the Riverside plan. While compatibility is undoubtedly important – no one wants a single-family home standing in the shadow of an eight-story, mixed-use behemoth – the vast amounts of underutilized, parking-pavement-stranded strip malls stretching down the street must be developed densely if rail is to succeed; there has to be a way to do that while protecting the existing residential uses, which are generally set back farther from Riverside.
As gut-check time rapidly approaches on whether a public transportation bond election will happen this November, council shouldn't do anything to add to the perils already facing urban rail.
Elsewhere on the agenda: Who can keep up with the Greenstar recycling contract melodrama, aka "As the Trash Turns"? First the contract extension – which mandates delivering 100% of the city's recyclables through spring 2011, and then a percentage thereafter for the final six months of the contract, presuming we'll find a better solution at that point than shipping our stuff to San Antonio – was delayed, following the questionable assertion from the city's legal department that the company had violated an anti-lobbying provision on the semi-related bid to build a materials recovery facility for local recyclables. With Greenstar now cleared by the city's purchasing officer to continue its MRF bid alongside other competitors, expect lots of discussion and dueling timelines on the contract (Item 50) – not all in public, either, as we wouldn't be surprised to see the issue added to the Executive Session roster.
Also up: Item 60, direction to the city manager to collect info on (slowly) raising taxi cab rates. The plight of cabbies has been given a higher profile lately by a recent report from Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, "Driving Austin, Driving Injustice," highlighting the long hours and low wages of Austin hacks (see "Naked City," Feb. 12); the Urban Transportation Commission has previously OK'd a rate increase. And a world away, Item 58 sees the city applying to be Google's guinea pig in its Fiber for Communities experiment. The search giant is looking to build an ultra-fast 1 gigabit-per-second broadband network (the standard in parts of Asia) in at least one American city to promote online innovation and shame U.S. service providers into stepping up their speeds, and this item applies for the privilege. And speaking of innovators, a 5:30pm proclamation honors departing Austin Energy honcho Roger Duncan, whose last day on the job is Friday.
Lob broadband bon mots at www.twitter.com/CityHallHustle.