Geography of Opportunity

30 11 2010

(written by Sinclair Black, previously published in the 10/23/10 issue of the University of Texas School of Architecture’s Platform, and posted here with the author’s permission)

If Austin weren’t always so hampered by short-sighted politicians and citizens in a tizzy against virtually everything, it would now be the best test case for land use paradigm change of emerging mid-sized American cities. This article explores Austin’s underutilized urban geography before discussing future lifestyle, economic and environmental benefits that can potentially be gained, not by continuing to embrace sprawl, but by optimizing density via infill.

Infill development generally occurs by rezoning formerly vital neighborhoods that have been lost over decades of change, which instigates private investment. An infill project should be appropriately scaled and leave a neighborhood significantly better off than before. Furthermore, transportation systems are pulmonaries through which any urbanized area breathes while its downtown is the heart that pumps its vitality. They are inextricably entwined; if one underperforms, stress is added to the other, which then adds stress to the other – until soon the whole urban structure begins collapsing into itself.

Streetcar systems facilitated the original growth of most American cities, including that of Austin; its first day:

Unfortunately those responsible for the advent of the automobile destroyed these rail systems; its last day:

The process of reinstituting streetcars running right “up the middle” will be facilitated by the near perfect grid of existing streets. With destinations like the CBD, the State Capitol Complex and UT, the market clearly exists for this. The potential to densify many centralized zones is tremendous. Streetcars can once again serve Austin’s most intense population concentrations while unlocking development potential of areas between and beyond.

Today, alas, Austin is not unique when it comes to having crosstown arterials that are lined by retail and low-density buildings. These auto-dominated thoroughfares divide neighborhoods and deny pedestrian corridors that could instead be interconnecting adjacent neighborhoods. Redeveloping these arterials into medium density, transit enabled, walkable, mixed-use continuous corridors could provide housing for thousands of people.

While many cities have brownfield sites due to former industrial land uses, Austin has “black holes” in the form of changed land uses. For example, the State of Texas owns many tracts of land around the city. As state institutions move, consolidate or disappear, land will become available for redevelopment by the private sector, ultimately filling most of the urban black holes. The zones adjacent to and north of the State Capitol Complex are totally automobile-oriented and, therefore, presently lifeless both day and night. A great opportunity exists to inject mixed-use development and urban life into this huge (80-block) area.

Many good examples of graceful increases in density and, of course, the subsequent corresponding increase in property values already exist in Austin. Central Park (38th and Lamar) and The Triangle are already established while Plaza Saltillo (the site of abandoned rail switching yards just east of the CBD and IH-35) and Mueller are currently being redeveloped as walkable, mixed-use New Urbanist communities. Others include the University Neighborhood Overlay that favors dense student housing, and the Rainey Street neighborhood at the intersection of IH-35 and Lady Bird Lake.

The Central Business District of Austin has traditionally been the center of the region. Very recently it has again become the focus of urban living and, as a result, the CBD is reemerging as a place of retail activity while also experiencing a hotel building surge. But two major problems exist: first being the brutal superimposition of IH-35 over historic East Avenue; the second being the yet-unrealized opportunity for approximately 91 acres (52 city blocks) of downtown redevelopment potential on the shores of Town Lake (AKA Lady Bird Lake). Because the latter is Austin’s most important amenity and most valuable real estate, it has the potential to become Austin’s “green lung” if done right. Encouraging sustainable development of privately-owned land along its edges is a short-cut to enhancing tax base and reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Thousands of people could live and work here, and the whole Central Texas Region would be infinitely better off as a result.

Yes, there is, of course, heartburn associated with this kind of change. But in the end thousands of people will be able to walk to their destinations. And, by living closer to where they work and play, literally tens of thousands of people will begin reducing the vehicle miles they travel rather than crowding streets with more commuter cars. With that said, let us now explore the benefits that could be gained by optimizing Austin’s density on just a few opportune sites.

Of the thousands of acres of unutilized and underutilized land inside the Austin city limits, we selected only five sites to explore the implications of walkable, mixed-use developments at a gentle level of density.  These five sites, representing about 10% of the opportunity in the region, included Green Water Treatement Plant, the West 5th Street Corridor, the Southbank at the Pecan Groves, the Statesman site just east of Congress, and the Northshore just east of IH-35.  After both the Riverside Corridor and the Brackenridge Tract master plans were completed, we added those numbers to the statistical analysis.  A brief summary of the impacts for the seven sites show (we’ll be addressing our assumptions in another posting):

  • Total area of non-public land for development: 1674 acres holding 44,500 housing units
  • Area of sprawl preempted: 13,150 acres
  • Length of new lake edge made open and accessible to the public: 3.1 miles.
  • Potential tax base creation: $12.87 billion
  • Mileage not driven due to shorter commutes: 1,118,495 miles daily
  • Gallons of gas saved daily: 57,675 gallons daily and 16,437,304 gallons annually
  • Amount of commuter time saved from sitting in traffic: 6,095 hours daily and 1,737,190 hours annually
  • Amount of CO2 emissions saved: 577 tons daily and 164,373 tons annually


The Austin Metropolitan Region is ever-verging upon violating the Clean Air Act. When this does indeed occur, we the people will have no choice but to densify in a manner quite similar to this proposal. It’s always better to act now rather than reacting later. While the five county regional vision of Envision Central Texas points the way towards a sustainable future, Austin needs visionary leadership and cooperation among jurisdictions that enables compact, walkable towns and neighborhoods linked by rail transit that is structured around the downtown core. The conditions are in place for paradigm change, to create a new “Geography of Opportunity” for our Central Texas Region.

Untapping an Austin Asset

10 11 2010

For backround information on the proceeding post (which builds upon Austin’s Landscape of Missed Opportunity), please refer to these great summations provided by Mike Clark-Madison in the Austin Chronicle on October 4, 2002:

The Great Streets 2025 Plan

Dark Blue: Pedestrian-Dominant Street; Green: Rapid Transit Street; Red: Commuter Boulevard; Orange: Commuter Street; Light Blue: Bicycle and Local Access Street; Yellow: Mixed-Mode Street; Purple: Pedestrian and Bikeways

NearTerm Downtown Transportation Plan

The Devil in the Details; Downtown Great Streets Plan stalled by commuter roadblocks (same canards used by opponents of 2010’s Prop 1)

William H. Whyte: “The street is the river of life of the city, the place where we come together, the pathway to the center.”

(Please note that the following was born to fruition on 4/29/2010, thus before a lot of relevant stuff happened.)

Transportation systems are the pulmonaries through which any urbanized region breathes while its Downtown is the heart that pumps its vitality.  They are inextricably entwined and, if one underperforms, stress is added to the other, which then adds stress to the other until soon the whole system begins spiraling downwards towards inevitable collapse.  According to the City of Austin, their Great Streets Master Plan “is founded on the vision set forth in the Council-adopted Downtown Austin Design Guidelines of a dense, vibrant downtown with a strong sense of place and strong concern for the public (that also)integrate(s) all modes of transportation into a balanced system of streets and sidewalks.” Yet ten years later one of the main underutilized infrastructural resources in Downtown Austin remains its streets, our most important and pervasive public space and common ground.

Today, with only a handful of exceptions, they are neither balanced nor active nor destinations, nor are they being used in a manner that manages congestion – All of which violates Austin’s very own guiding principles for Great Streets design. Furthermore, the City is currently in a state of flux regarding the need to broaden its transportation modality away from extreme auto-centricity. This ongoing debate of how to best implement such infrastructural improvements as Urban Rail, bicycle boulevards, transit transfer facilities, rerouting/eliminating certain bus lines and implementing Bus Rapid Transit and a Transportation Management Association, provides Austin with a tremendous opportunity to synchronize its efforts and leverage existing underutilized and undervalued resources in an efficient manner so that the most optimal end possible is achieved.

It is argued here that incorporating Great Streets into any and all of the infrastructural improvements cited above would be an excellent investment, one with comparatively low short-term costs but very high long-term benefits that would permeate throughout the Region.

The key component of Great Streets is promoting mobility and accessibility, and the complete street concept has been embraced by an increasing number of cities, from Los Angeles to St. Louis and Chattanooga to Washington D.C. By moving beyond just viewing streets as concourses for cars and opening them to cyclists, pedestrians, and loungers, converting one-way streets back to two-way streets and sometimes even into car free public plazas, these cities are instigating and accommodating diverse street environments, which as you know are integral to sustainable urban economic development strategies. While there has been no study of the economic benefits of the Great Streets program per se, the value of improving walkability has been quantified by several researchers.

In his Economic Value of Walkability, the Victoria Transport Policy Institute’s Todd Litman states: “Walking and walkability provide a variety of benefits, including basic mobility, consumer cost savings, cost savings (reduced external costs), efficient land use, community livability, improved fitness and public health, economic development, and support for equity objectives. Current transportation planning practices tend to undervalue walking. More comprehensive analysis techniques, described in this paper, are likely to increase public support for walking and other nonmotorized modes of travel.” Other studies have proven that walkable communities not only have higher housing values and cost taxpayers less but reduce commuting costs and attract tourists and “new economy” workers as well; they also function better than auto-centric communities at capturing emerging “lifestyle” retail markets and, thus, they have become a relocation incentive for businesses. One case in point: Downtown Lodi, California, which launched a $4.5 million public-private pedestrian oriented project, including a retrofit of five main street blocks from building face to building face. The City credits these improvements for 60 new businesses, the drop in the vacancy rate from 18% to 6% and 30% increase in Downtown sales tax revenues.

Another powerful example of how Great Streets can redefine a place by incorporating principles of walkable sustainability and building from the spirit of the place itself is the unquestionable success of Austin’s own Second Street District. Once a virtual land use vacuum, now this premier, mixed-use retail spine serves as a wonderful predicate for what the rest of Downtown can become; Great Streets is the only variable that distinguishes it as an economic catalyst. This paradigm should be the impetus for City of Austin leaders to begin both designing and implementing more Great Streets in order to help fulfill its goal of drawing new residents to Downtown (as portrayed in the aforementioned Downtown Austin Design Guidelines). While the Caesar Chavez Conversion, 23rd Street, and Brazos Streetscape Improvement & Reconstruction Projects are underway, other integral projects are languishing, including most particularly Third, Colorado, Congress (note: targeted for update, revitalization!), Guadalupe and Lavaca. All five of these underutilized streets are in some way being studied as prime transportation corridors for implementing everything from Urban Rail and a Transit Transfer Facility to bicycle boulevards and Bus Rapid Transit – Yet since 2002 there has been virtually no mention of Great Streets whatsoever (of course with the exception of, among several others, Katherine Gregor [for one example, please read her Gone and Quartered]).

This is an oversight that must be rectified before a tremendous opportunity to make Austin a much more Livable place in a relatively cost-efficient manner is lost. As such, this proposal for research funding includes the following scope of work:

  • Examining relevant pre-existing research reports (as cited above)
  • Applying the knowledge gained from these pre-existing research reports into the City of Austin’s urban context
  • Determining the economic impact of Second Street versus that of non-Great Streets
  • Generating a quantifiable number or, better, scale of numbers that will be applied to the tax-base of non-Great Streets in a “what could occur” economic development projection scenario
  • Determining the job creation impact/multiplier effect of implementing Great Downtown Streets
  • Establishing how those economic development benefits will impact the surrounding environs
  • Suggesting changes to the Great Streets Development Program’s Reimbursement Cap Criteria
  • Helping coordinate construction timelines so that Great Streets are incorporated into any and all of the potential congestion-mitigation strategies (as cited above), reducing inefficient overlaps and ensuring achievement of the most optimal results
  • Creating a Great Streets Transportation Plan that maximizes the extant street grid’s capacity in a manner that improves mobility and accessibility with a relatively minimal capital improvement outlay

In the current sociopolitical environment, endeavoring to maximize value-capture of such a vastly underutilized if not outright forgotten infrastructural resource as Downtown’s existing street grid should be considered a no-brainer must win-win situation for all involved. And, if the City of Austin does invest in this modest research proposal, it, like the Great Streets Strategy itself, will prove to have very low short-term costs that instigate many quantifiable long-term benefits – As well as those so beautifully unquantifiable:

(Addendum: Although The Placemaking Institute is on record as to the many mistakes made during the City’s campaign for Proposition 1, needless to say, thankfully it was approved by voters…The multi-modal ball has begun rolling, and from here on in its momentum must continue to be instigated. How? Again, by quantifying regional benefits, learning from past mistakes, and working to forestall the opposition’s arguments.)

Post-Prop 1 Election Quarterbacking

3 11 2010

Yesterday Austin approved Proposition 1 and thus $90 million in bonds for multi-modal transportation projects, with 91,721 (56.3%) voting for it and 71,154 (43.7%) voting against it.

While I’m sure there are those who are, and should be, dancing in the streets about this victory, the final result (as well as what led up to it) very much troubles The Placemaking Institute, especially upon taking into account the big picture.


Mayor Leffingwell’s belief that Prop 1 would be accepted by 85% of the voters is on the record. He also said, “I’ve heard about polls that indicate this is going to be a close contest. We had not expected that to happen. I think that’s entirely due to a large infusion of money by opponents into media and signs and so forth.”

But, as Ben Wear pointed out, “(W)hat is not arguable is that the larger infusion of money actually has been from supporters (who) through Oct. 23 had raised more than twice as much money as opponents.” And he’s not even including the approximately $600,000 the City spent on its website!

In no way should this race have been so close, and I cannot believe that people are surprised by the outcome. What actually surprises me about yesterday’s vote is that the opposition wasn’t ultimately successful. To be polite, this situation denotes Pollyanna-ish complacency, as well as a lack of among other things political leadership and wherewithal. Scarcely being able to generate passage of a relatively innocuous bond at a cost of, for all intents and purposes, a piddling $90 million does not bode well for the projected 2012 $1.5 billion Urban Rail Bond proposal – Unless the so-called powers that be learn from their mistakes.

Why do I feel this way?

Because the City of Austin was caught with its pants down and got lucky. In football parlance, their offense consisted of one-yard-and-a-cloud-of dust, running the same play, even though poll after poll indicated the issue was not gaining traction. The Prop 1 opposition, on the other hand, viewed this bond election as a great way to sharpen their knives for the Urban Rail issue, and they reacted accordingly. If this campaign had been a contest of managerial skills, they would have blown the City’s doors off.


Because political campaigns try to reduce opponents to caricatures, that’s why. And to this end, despite only having spent about $50,000 on advertisement, the anti-Prop 1 lobby succeeded. They ran a tight organization, which they always do when fighting any proposal that contains anything but roads and roads and more roads. Anybody surprised by this has essentially been sleeping throughout the past 30 some odd years of Austin’s history.


Because the first political rule of thumb is “know thy enemy;” their hackneyed arguments were transparent, predictable, and they should have been both anticipated and nipped in the bud. If the City’s campaign was in any way adequate and had done so, Prop 1 would most likely have been passed by a more definitive majority that could have been used as a firm groundswell foundation for other multi-modal endeavors. Their failure lies in the fact that it allowed the opposition to frame the issue, forcing reaction instead of action. I could go on and on and on with examples, believe you me.

But to give just one: the main argument against the bond was that it favored projects downtown at the expense of those elsewhere. What the City should have done was first prove the economic development benefits of the bond package before showing how those benefits will begin permeating throughout the rest of the region. How could the City not anticipate this happening?

While some rinky-dink organization like the Placemaking Institute did? Because, in fact, several months ago we floated a grant proposal to several Prop 1 proponents that received no interest whatsoever. It shall suffice as next week’s installment of The Placemaking Institute’s “Austin’s Landscape of Missed Opportunity.”

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