City Council is scheduled to vote today on the East Riverside Corridor Master Plan. Let's hope Council ignores the Planning Commission.
The Plan envisions the redevelopment of East Riverside as a New Urbanist corridor, built around four major transit hubs. The hope, of course, is that the "transit" will someday be a light rail line connecting downtown and the airport. But East Riverside is a natural place for redevelopment of this kind, with or without rail. East Riverside is close to downtown. It is already fairly dense yet (paradoxically) has many low-density or undeveloped tracts suitable for redevelopment. There is proven market demand, as demonstrated by the redevelopment underway on the western end. While there are single family neighborhoods along the route, there are fewer than along, say, Burnett or Lamar. And, finally, the existing development consists largely of decaying strip malls; everyone (including area residents) would like to see a better use of the land.
The Plan basically proposes four types of districts. "Corridor Mixed Use" (brown in the map below) would contain the major retail and office and provide the highest density. "Neighborhood Mixed use" would contain less intensive commercial and retail while the "Urban Residential" and "Neighborhood Residential" districts would provide multi-family (exclusively) and single-family housing.
For this to work, the Plan must allow a critical mass of density. Rail won't have a chance to succeed without lots of people within walking distance of each stop. And property owners will need an incentive to demolish income-generating (if unglamorous) strip malls. A plan is not worth anything if no one builds anything.
The planners recognized this. The solid ovals above represent a five-minute walk from the projected rail stops. The planners generally filled the ovals with the densest district.
But this is a master plan -- a conceptual plan -- rather than a regulating plan, which would contain all the nitty-gritty regulations. The plan does not specify the allowable density in the base districts. It contemplates that districts will retain the existing height limitations, but anticipates a density bonus program that would allow greater height in exchange for "community benefits." It leaves the details of the density bonus program for the regulating plan.
The plan likewise leaves (or left) the issue of compatibility for the regulating plan. A single-family home in Austin imposes height restrictions on all properties within 540 feet. A building can be no taller than 30 feet if it is within 50 feet of the single-family property line. The height limit rises to 40 feet at 100 feet from the property line; 60 feet at 300 feet from the property line; and 120 feet at 540 feet from the property line. Most districts have a base zoning height of 60 feet. A property in one of these districts cannot develop to its full height unless the nearest single-family home is at least a football field away.
Although East Riverside has fewer single-family homes than other transit corridors, it still has a few subdivisions, including one abutting the western transit hub. The Plan does not purport to resolve compatibility. The planners acknowledged that some type of compatibility regulation will be necessary, but did not endorse the existing standards. It left for the regulating plan the difficult task of negotiating a compromise that leaves neighboring homeowners satisfied while allowing enough density to keep this from being a merely academic exercise. That was to be a conversation for another day.
But the Planning Commission concluded that there really is no reason to have that conversation at all. It approved the plan, but only after insisting on an amendment that would retain all existing compatibility standards. As this map presented by staff at Council's last briefing shows, insisting on rigid compliance with existing compatibility standards would gut three of the four proposed transit hubs:
This graphic understates the damage, I think. Much of the property shaded orange would be held to 30- or 40-foot height limits, which is too short to make mixed-use feasible. And although each of the transit hubs has plenty of white -- unregulated -- space, the orange and yellow are concentrated on East Riverside itself. It is silly to believe that we will see walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods spring up around these transit hubs if we hold development on East Riverside itself to 30- or 40-feet.
The Planning Commission in this case actively undercut the planning process. It should have given a simple "aye," recognizing that compatibility is something that must be worked out in the future by the consultants, staff, neighbors and property owners. Instead, it has tried to take compatibility off the table completely, to eliminate any flexibility. And if that dooms the plan? Shrug, I guess.
Update: Last night, City Council approved the Master Plan without the Planning Commission's amendments.