On any given day after 5pm, thousands of joggers, cyclists and pedestrians descend onto the Roy and Ann Butler Hike and Bike Trail along Lady Bird Lake in central Austin, Texas.
For 5.4 miles on both the water’s north and south side, enchanted tree-lined paths offer big views of the lake, sunsets and twinkling lights of a constantly changing downtown skyline. It is one of those places, like Austin City Limits venue Zilker Park or the south side’s funky, food-truck-lined streets, that make the boho Texas capital what it is.
Recently, property owners in the district — including the city’s daily paper, the Austin American-Statesman — have realized there is potential for growth yet untapped in the area, and put several tracts totaling 19 acres in the area up for sale. Given Austin’s boomtown status, it’s no secret that developers smell opportunity.
Which is why the American Institute of Architects recently joined community planners and residents here for a intensive jolt of groupthink that they hope will result in a new master plan for the area.
Austin was one of seven communities across the country that won grants from the AIA in 2012 to promote excellence in urban design and future development. In Austin’s case, the targeted area is along the South Shores Central area of Lake Lady Bird. In June, the AIA sent a team (part of its Sustainable Design Assessment Team initiative run by AIA’s Center for Communities by Design) to the Texas capital in June to assess the south shore of Lady Bird Lake and provide technical and design expertise. The community was invited to review ideas and renderings and share input for the future of that part of the waterfront.
The effort at South Shores Central follows the recent passage by City Council of Imagine Austin, a comprehensive, citywide, City Council-approved plan stresses walkability, community nodes and connectivity. Other significant initiatives are under consideration as well, including plans for mass transit.
The need for a new development strategy is clear. Austin is a city growing so fast that this year, it replaced San Francisco as the nation’s 13th largest city in the country, according the Census Bureau. But despite the influx of thousands, comprehensive planning with teeth has been lacking. Unlike compact San Francisco, where an average 17,179 residents occupy each square mile, Austin is home to 2,653 residents per square mile. Efforts to develop a denser central Austin have been frustrated over the years, in part by politically engaged but balkanized neighborhood groups. Instead, developers have followed the highways north and south.
Contributing to the planning inertia, Austin’s council members are elected at-large. That means no district representation, a fact that some say has contributed to a failure of citywide holistic thinking about how to develop. According to Joel Mills, director of sustainability at the AIA in Washington, the Imagine Austin plan is a first attempt at moving beyond neighborhood-based planning discussions and thinking about citywide future development in the long term.
Daniel Woodroffe, a former Waterfront Board Member and current Downtown Austin Alliance and Austin Parks Foundation Board Member, pointed to the rapid influx of downtown condos and residential development just blocks from the lake. Woodroffe, also president at DWG Landscape Architecture, said all the development had rapidly changed the fabric of a downtown that used to be a just a business-oriented 9-5 experience.
Mills said that since the area is large there are so many parcels potentially at play, there’s opportunity to look at the street network and go for an efficient redesign.
Alan Holt, AIA principal planner for City of Austin Planning Department, said a new analytic tool will allow for real-time adjustments for development, such as building heights, reducing impervious cover by a certain amount or increasing a building’s height by a certain amount. All of that data would then be used to further inform and engage the public as well as City Hall, the final arbiters on development decisions in Austin.
“Obviously, the huge superblocks in that area are a complete contrast to making the area more pedestrian friendly,” said Holt.
He said one of the compelling visions put forth by the plan was breaking up the superblocks to create a more grid-like street pattern and increase open space. The goal-take big developments that would be built on large concrete spaces and grid to smaller blocks and build up- not out. Street frontage would be key. Holt said that changes would be necessary to existing ordinances in order to incentivize developers to create walkable blocks.
Given the contentious relationships between the development community and central Austin residents, however, will citizens be engaged and trust a vision put forth in part by a team of urban designers from outside the city and that already-maligned development community?
The doubt is tangible. For example, the website for Save Town Lake, a local neighborhood group (Lady Bird Lake also goes by Town Lake), states, “the size and scale of future projects on the waterfront are more dangerous than ever.”
Holt said there’s a lot of frustration with an ordinance designating the area as a Planned Unit Development, because many see this as a provision where developers can go to the City Council and propose whatever they want in a very political arena.
Still, Holt said he got some indication about how the community might react to a greater vision when the AIA team was in Austin. He said there were around 200 citizens involved directly in various input meetings, roundtables and other stakeholder meetings.
“On the one hand, 200 people is a lot,” said Holt. “But on the other, in a city of three quarters of a million, it’s a drop in the bucket.”
Overall, he said the reactions have ranged from excitement to fear.
“One of the hopes, especially working with the new analytic tool, is the intent to have a lot of public demonstrations on what new entitlements and build outs would mean,” said Holt. “A lot of citizen resistance to change is not having a good understanding about what these changes actually mean.”