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Council begins work on Lamar/Justin Station Area Plan

Monday, April 28, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

By the time Council got to the Lamar Boulevard/Justin Lane Transit-Oriented Development Station Area Plan at last week’s Council meeting – the third to make it to the dais so far – the core issues raised by Council appeared to be well defined.

Council members agree on the basics:

  • 25 percent affordable housing;
  • a commitment not to upzone potential parkland acquisitions;
  •  the creation of a tax-increment finance (TIF) zone to fund public space upgrades;
  • some type of funding vehicle to pay for utility improvements;
  • no fee in lieu of affordable housing from developers; and
  • a requirement for city departments to approach the Council if they intend to do anything that would alter the plan.

Those were the agreements on the Plaza Saltillo and Martin Luther King TODs. They will be the requirements on the Lamar Boulevard/Justin Lane TOD. The TOD, plus its regulating plan and amendments to Crestview/Wooten and Brentwood/Highland neighborhood plans, were passed on first reading, with the intention of returning for second reading at the end of May.

TIF zones are a tool to use future gains in taxes to finance the current improvements that will create those gains.

Station area plans, however, do appear to be getting progressively tougher to resolve. Plaza Saltillo, already well into its planning phase, clearly has issues, but it also stands as an obvious backbone for an effective station area plan. To a lesser degree, the same is true of the MLK station site.

But take a look at the Lamar Boulevard/Justin Lane TOD. It would be more accurate to call it the Lamar Boulevard/Airport Boulevard intersection plan.  This intersection, cleaved at an odd angle, is more industrial than pedestrian friendly.  The most notable landmarks in the area are the train tracks, the nearby Highland Mall, a whole bunch of mattress shops and The Yellow Rose strip club.

To turn this area into a friendly pedestrian-oriented location – even with the assistance of the Crestview Station Plan, is going to be quite a trick.

The biggest challenge to this TOD plan is reworking the intersection of Lamar Boulevard and Airport Boulevard, diverting traffic onto other arteries so that a more pleasant pedestrian-oriented platform area can be created at the intersection.  Despite passage on first reading last week, it is clear that the city still has much to do to calm the fears of all four neighborhoods.

Resident Chris Kite said the current proposal – to connect Easy Wind to Justin Lane and Canion to Justin Lane – would do too little good and simply conflict with the neighborhood and city’s goal to increase pedestrian use of the streets.

“As a real smart traffic engineer once told me, a lot of connectivity is good,” Kite said. “You have multiple ingress and egress and a lot more flow. The problem is that a little bit of connectivity is really bad; it’s even worse than nothing. It funnels all these crazy chokepoints and funnels traffic into a few locations.”

Affordable housing also may be tougher at this location. With the exception of the Austin Energy site, none of the land in the area is publicly owned. That means a real commitment to affordable housing – a deeper and more significant commitment to affordable units – might have to come through city ownership.

And while the plan presented to Council implied a commitment of 10 percent affordable units with a more nebulous goal of 25 percent of the units on-site being affordable, Council did lock in the 25 percent affordability commitment.

Planner George Adams presented the regulating plan on the TOD, which would be the city ordinances that would apply to the site. According to the plan, no building in the TOD would be taller than 60 feet, with or without exceptions. Density will be maximized but no more dense than 45 units per acre. Other standards set out streetscape requirements, maximum block lengths, parking requirements, required setbacks, lot size, impervious cover and the standards for development bonuses.

Council Members Mike Martinez and Lee Leffingwell were most vocal about getting the city to address the traffic concerns in the plan. Leffingwell, in a friendly amendment to the motion, asked for a comprehensive look at the traffic flow through the area. Martinez asked frequent questions about just how far the city could go to address the neighborhoods’ concerns about cut-through traffic.

In an ancillary presentation, Luci Galbraith of Capital Metro presented a number of views of the Crestview station and, specifically, the way to route for buses around the development and alongside the train platform. While the platform will start with one track, it eventually is expected to house two tracks.

The current flow of traffic around the development worked, Galbraith said, but she agreed that the traffic situation was far from ideal.  For instance, neighbors want to see a vehicular crossing across the tracks. Galbraith said Capital Metro had to pass on that idea because the vehicles would clearly conflict with trains if the cars got stuck on the tracks when the crossing arms went down on the intersection.

“It’s definitely a complicated intersection,” Galbraith said.

Leffingwell called on Adams to gather a group of stakeholders and review all the conceptual street extensions and connections. Between now and second reading, which Adams predicted could be either the last meeting in May or the first Council meeting in June, the concept of traffic mitigation should be refined, he said.

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