October 28, 2009
Austin's Transit-Oriented Development
Molly Scarborough, Senior Planner with the Austin Planning Department, gave a presentation today on Austin's transit-oriented planning at the Houston-Galveston Area Council, as part of Houston Tomorrow's "Livable Houston Initiative." Interestingly, the promo blurb indicated that she would be talking about "efforts that the City of Austin has made to encourage and allow transit-oriented development that have already resulted in substantial development even though their first rail line is not yet operational." That's pretty much the opposite of Houston, which has had an operational light rail line for about five years, but has little TOD to show for it.
150 miles apart, Houston and Austin differ in lots of ways, actually. Houston is the quintessential Texas big metropolis, the Unzoned City, and headquarters of the global energy industry. With the state government, the major research University of Texas, the music scene, and a tech sector, denizens of the state capital prefer to Keep Austin Weird.
Whether Austinites want to be weird or not, Ms. Scarborough reports that they do want mixed-use, walkable urban neighborhoods and TOD (at least to some extent). The city government has done extensive planning for over a decade to try to set the conditions for both urban transit and pedestrian-oriented TOD. Scarborough points to a 2002 regional planning effort through Envision Central Texas as a key event in articulating a vision for transit and urban design. The city has responded with a number of initiatives, including the downtown "Great Streets" program; Station Area Planning for TOD districts; specific neighborhood- and project-oriented programs; and a TOD Ordinance.
Another thing I found interesting from Scarborough's talk was her discussion of the city-wide Design Standards and Mixed Use Ordinance, adopted in 2006. The intent of the ordinance was to encourage citywide the kind of higher-density, mixed-use development envisioned for the TOD districts. It included an opt-in/out provision for neighborhoods. Scarborough indicated that many people think of it as a form-based code, but that she prefers to think of it as a "design code."
Scarborough indicated that the city's "density bonuses" are just beginning to be implemented. These "bonuses" include waivers for single-use zoning requirements; floor-area ratios; density (dwelling units per acre); setbacks; and other land use regulations. In return, the developer receiving the "bonus" is expected to comply with design guidelines and to make certain contributions to sidewalks, landscaping, wastewater management, and other public-area considerations. Affordable housing incentives also seem to be in the mix (although this may be mostly in the TOD ordinance). Scarborough reports that there are concerns from both ends: some citizens complain that the community benefits exacted are too low; while others worry that the scheme itself amounts to a development "tax" that could undermine the goal of the program, which is to promote higher-density vertical mixed use. Writing from the Unzoned City, I wonder if the latter critique has merit-- if the goal is to incentivize mixed use and density, wouldn't the easier solution be to simply remove the traditional zoning regulations that mandate low density and single use? But Scarborough indicated that the "bonuses" were necessary to get the neighborhoods on board . . . which is understandable.
All in all, a very interesting presentation. Austin's TOD and urban design efforts are worth watching.
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