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In Fact Daily

Monday, September 24, 2001 by

Jana McCann, urban design officer

Architect has vision for downtown streets

By David Ansel

Jana McCann is the Urban Design Officer for the City of Austin. She is assigned to the Department of Transportation, Planning and Sustainability, which, under the direction of Austan Librach, was formed by a recent reorganization. “One of the good ideas from the City Manager’s Office was to integrate land-use planning with transportation planning,” says McCann. “It’s already proven to be a good thing, because we’re able to easily access transportation expertise and readily get support from traffic engineering. It [the combined department] has been extremely beneficial.”

This is McCann’s first government sector job after a long international career as an architect and project manager in the private sector. She heads up an eight-person division that includes two landscape architects, two architects and a preservation historian. “Austan has been supportive of this effort to create from scratch an urban design activity. We didn’t expect that it would be such a resource. A lot of projects have been starved for our expertise.” McCann’s breadth of experience helps her bridge the gap between long-range planning parties, site developers and project managers. “I can do the early concept planning phase and then develop it into a schematic level of design. In the case of master plans, we take what’s still in planner language and documentation and implement the ideas. We’ll take a document like that and say, ‘What can we change about the Land Development Code? What can become ordinance?’”

McCann’s magnum opus is the Great Streets Master Plan, which was inspired by the Downtown Austin Design Guidelines. The guidelines address issues that affect quality of life and the viability of downtown business. They promote continuity in street-level commerce and social activity by avoiding automobile-reliant projects. Great Streets is an extension of these guidelines.

McCann says, “Streets in America are the quintessential public space, but we treat them as though they’re utility infrastructure. We don’t experience being there; we just drive past. That’s a really critical thing downtown, a nexus where the diverse members of the community should come together, to provide each other a multiplicity of experience. We’re trying to create an immersive [sic] environment. That’s the difference between downtown and a mall—the sense of the unexpective [sic], which is attractive. Of course you want it to be safe, but there’s something about spontaneous experience. It gives you something new in your universe of experience.”

According to the Great Streets Master Plan, the pecking order for downtown streets is reversed: pedestrians first, bicyclists and transit riders next and finally motorists. That change in priority is actually written into the Master Plan, which was adopted by the City Council in the spring of 2000. “With Great Streets, we look at (an) eighty-foot right-of-way and consider how we apportion it. Is a ten-foot sidewalk a humane design for people? Probably not. What we’re coming up with is almost half [of the right-of-way] is devoted to pedestrians, with 18-foot sidewalks and ample space for shade trees.” McCann stresses the importance of shade trees in making Austin’s streets more attractive to pedestrians. “The trees are critical. The two most important things in a street are safe, smooth, continuous sidewalks, and the shade and spiritual presence of trees. Certainly Austin thinks of itself as a green city, but downtown is almost bereft of trees. They reduce the heat island effect and make walking and catching a bus possible and pleasant.”

Traffic calming is another key to making city streets safer and more enjoyable. To that end, Great Streets envisions a return to the two-way street system. “It means that driving through the city might be slower, but will allow you to use all the streets in the grid . . . We don’t need more right-of-way; we need to convert more trips to transit.” A two-way street plan is a controversial area of debate, since traffic engineers feel that it defies their attempts to improve traffic flow. As a result of these conflicting interests, the Great Streets Master Plan, the Downtown Access Mobility Plan and the Downtown Parking Study have linked their efforts, most recently meeting on September 20. (See In Fact Daily, September 21, 2001 .)

The Council awarded the Great Streets Master Plan to Black & Vernooy Architects along with Girard Kinney and Associates. Kinney is the Project Manager and has a large team of consultants, including Donna Carter, Jose Martinez, Eleanor McKinney, Lars Stanley and Charles Thompson.

The Seaholm District Master Plan is another key project for McCann. In 1996, the City Council resolved to preserve Seaholm Power Plant for public use, and toward that end, the city hired in 1999 public attractions consultant Sherry Wagner. Following her recommendations, the City Manager’s Office prescribed incorporating the reuse effort into an urban design and redevelopment master plan. “Seaholm sits on a tiny piece of land in a black hole in the urban fabric,” says McCann. “We needed to create a master plan for the whole area to see how Seaholm could link to downtown, parks and transportation.” ROMA Design Group, a San Francisco firm, was hired in June 2000, to create the master plan. ROMA is already heading up the 700-acre Mueller Airport redevelopment and the Town Lake Waterfront Overlay District project.

McCann describes the role of ROMA in these three projects, saying, “Unfortunately, the City doesn’t have a lot of professional expertise in master planning. ROMA has been around for 50 years and has a professional maturity that hasn’t occurred in Austin. There are a lot of promising firms out there in town, but urban design hasn’t been an Austin thing. This problem is not unique to Austin.” McCann said, “When we do a project, it’s normally a single facility with car mobility issues. We don’t look at front-end planning and integration or understand landscape, transportation and land use in a comprehensive way. We’re a little small town in our thinking, and there aren’t many examples of multi-modal, integrative thinking.”

Seaholm's master plan is a formidable project. The area is bounded by Cesar Chavez, 4th St., Lamar Blvd, and Shoal Creek. McCann stated, “The first priority of the master plan is to make a space for power plant reuse and make sure it can flourish with adequate parking, bike and transit access that a major project would require. Then we can present it to a master developer and say, ‘Here is what we’re doing and how it can function as a piece of the larger city.’ The second priority is thinking of the area as a potential for a major multi-modal transport center. It’s located on the rail line near the Amtrak station. TxDOT has done a usability study for commuter rail line. Cap Metro would come to link to rail along 3rd and 4th Streets, with a bus transfer area. There’s a ‘bike station’ where people could come into town, park their bicycle in a sheltered area, and take a bus or light rail to their destination. This is the only place where these potential things can come together, which makes it a very important place.” The master plan will be submitted to the Council on October 25.

McCann lived in Austin in the early seventies and returned in 1997 after long stints in Paris and London. “I’m happy about coming back to Austin after ten years of larger international projects that insisted on creating great space for the public. It’s been good timing, returning to Austin at a time where there’s a growing concern for urban planning.” After teaching urban design and planning classes at UT, she was offered a job with the city. “I was able to introduce the idea of what an urban design activity can do, to be informed by Smart Growth, how we grow and become a more compact city at the same time. The more compact one gets, the more important urban design gets.” McCann brings a holistic view of planning to Austin’s table. “We need to understand how people walk around—their physical and spiritual relationship to their environment. If you want people to start walking, biking and using transit, then how the city feels becomes more critical. I feel like I can infuse the notions about city, community and civic culture into a town that’s been far too public works-driven.”

McCann practices what she preaches. She spends her free time designing her home, located in what she calls a “21st century commune” in the Zilker neighborhood, a group of houses that will eventually share a common garden, orchard and rainwater collection.

Council returns after

Post-budget vacation

Zoning, road plan, neighborhood plan on agenda

The City Council returns this week after a two-week hiatus. Council Members will be asked to decide whether to grant developer Bill Gurasich a zoning change in an area that is included in the recently expanded airport overlay zone. The goal of the expanded overlay zone is to limit new residential construction in areas surrounding Austin Bergstrom International Airport. Gurasich wants to change the zoning on part of the Stoney Ridge subdivision from SF-2 to SF-3. City staff recommended against the change because SF-3 would put even more people under the flight path of ABIA than would be allowed under SF-2. The Planning Commission agreed with the staff’s recommendation. (See In Fact Daily, July 18, 2001, Aug. 2, 2001, Aug. 9, 2001.)

The Council is scheduled to face another thorny issue this week, made worse by the failure of the federal Environmental Protection Agency to live up to an agreement made with the Save Our Springs Alliance (SOSA) in settling a lawsuit. EPA and the US Fish & Wildlife Service agreed to issue a new ruling on whether to allow developers to build in the Barton Springs Zone under the construction general permit by September 5. USFWS issued a draft biological opinion which concluded that further degradation in water quality at Barton Springs “jeopardizes the continued existence” of the endangered Barton Springs salamander. (See In Fact Daily, July 25, 2001) The only way to prevent further degradation and continue development in the area would be to apply a non-degradation standard to all new development, according to FWS. Such a standard would require a much higher level of scrutiny than provided by the general permit—which is essentially just a registration form.

Developer Larry Nieman has requested that zoning on portions of his property at 10400 Brodie Lane be changed from IRR (interim rural residential) to SF-2, standard lot single-family zoning. The property contains a number of features, such as sinkholes, which are important avenues of recharge for Barton Springs. Nieman has been negotiating with FWS, but admits that his plan does not meet the non-degradation standard recommended by the agency. City Council Members were anxious to receive the final opinion because the city has already been notified by SOSA of it’s intention to file suit under the federal Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts as a result of development at Circle C West and the Hielscher tract. (See In Fact Daily, Aug. 6, 2001) Since the case was last postponed in August, EPA and FWS officials have failed to issue a final document and SOSA has requested a federal judge to enforce the agreement.

The Council will also hold a public hearing on whether to amend the Austin Metropolitan Area Transportation Plan (AMATP) to delete Frate Barker Road from Manchaca to SH-45 South. Environmentalists have opposed expansion of the road, which is on Travis County’ s Nov. 6 bond ballot.

Members of the Rosewood Neighborhood Planning Team and city staff will present their neighborhood plan to the city for approval. The fiscal impact of the plan is estimated at more than $1.9 million. However, approval of the neighborhood plan “does not legally obligate the Council to implement any particular recommendation,” according to agenda notes. Neighborhood plans previously did not carry a price tag, but Council asked City Manager Jesus Garza to provide that information on numerous items that previously were presented without fiscal notes.

2001 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

New ACVB chief . . . Globest.com has reported that Robert Lander of Phoenix has been named to head the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau. Lander is scheduled to begin his new job in early October. Ric Luber, former ACVB director, retired at the end of August . . . Garcia busy . . . Mayoral candidate Gus Garcia is scheduled to answer questions at the Save Barton Creek Association meeting this evening. The group meets every Monday at 7pm at the Filling Station on Barton Springs Road. Garcia is also the guest speaker at the Real Estate Council of Austin luncheon, which begins at 11:30a.m.Wednesday at the Four Seasons Hotel . . . Charity event . . . Graves, Dougherty, Hearon & Moody is assisting CASA of Travis County in fundraising this year. The law firm promises that “some of Austin’s top business, political, civic, and entertainment leaders will come together for Engaging Conversations,” the event benefiting CASA on Thursday, October 4. The firm will donate $100 for each person who attends. CASA of Travis County is a non-profit organization that has been providing a voice for abused and neglected children. For more information, call 459-CASA or visit http://www.casatravis.org

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