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City seeking to concentrate services, housing at rail stations

Thursday, August 21, 2008 by Mark Richardson

With Capital Metro’s MetroRail service heading down the tracks in just a few months, City Council will be getting a detailed plan this week on what kind of stations may eventually be there when the train arrives.


City staff has been developing preliminary Station Area Plans for stops at Crestview, Martin Luther King and Plaza Saltillo. There will be nine stations along the MetroRail route from Leander to Downtown Austin.


The Council’s Land Use and Transportation Committee got a sneak peek Monday at the Transit Oriented Development plans for the three central city stations. George Adams and other staff from the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department outlined the work they have done since the TOD Plan’s first reading back in April.


The idea behind TODs is to concentrate housing, employment and commercial services within walking distance of stations in order to maximize their effect on getting cars off the street.


Adams outlined five priorities for the Station Area plans, including infrastructure, parks and open space, affordable housing, catalyst projects, and funding for implementation.   


In terms of infrastructure, he said the extension of utilities to the area, including water and wastewater, would be one of the biggest cost drivers, though traffic improvements on nearby streets would also be a major part of the projects.


“We will need to designate capital improvement funds to make the improvements needed in order to develop the TODs,” Adams said. He said his department currently proposes adding $15 million for water and $15 million for wastewater projects to the 2009-18 CIP Spending Plan. He is also recommending an additional $20 million for strategic improvements to storm drains, relocations, partnering and inlet construction


In terms of transportation improvements, the Crestview area west of Lamar at Airport will be in need of the most infrastructure changes, including sidewalk modifications, pedestrian-activated signals, safety lighting and signs. It also includes methods to improve east-west mobility across Lamar between Koenig and Anderson lanes, and traffic mitigation on Morrow, Easy Wind and Justin.


In its first reading the Council asked staff to identify park acquisition sites. Based on that, staff identified a number of sites suitable for small and “pocket” style parks in the area. Staff suggested spending developers’ fees to improve existing parkland inside of proposed TODs.


Council members send staff to work with a large number questions following first reading, including a direction to determine an implementation plan to meet a goal of 25 percent affordable housing in the TODs.


Margaret Shaw, director of the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department, said the city would have to come up with several million dollars to make that happen.


“The total amount of affordable housing possible through 2015 is between 168 and 288 units,” she said. “That will mean that city would have to subsidize these units with between $6.1 and $31.5 million.”


Shaw recommended that in order to achieve the 25 percent level, the city should:


  • Encourage affordability via developmental bonuses;
  • Provide gap financing with general obligation bonds;
  • Utilize fee-in-lieu funds to build affordable housing;
  • Facilitate tax credit developments; and
  • Develop catalyst projects on city-owned property.


Council also asked staff to identify locations and possible candidates for what it calls “catalyst” projects for the TODs. Catalysts are demonstration projects that are prime examples of affordable, family-oriented housing and open space.


Staff identified two areas, one near Plaza Saltillo and the other near Crestview, as potential catalyst sites. The first is a 5.33-acre site currently used by the city’s Building Services that is currently used for a variety of city functions. The other is a 5.5-acre site on Justin Lane currently owned by Austin Energy currently being used as a laydown yard.


City staff, with Council’s approval, will return at a future date, after examining the costs and impact of relocating the city services, and the availability of other sites.


And for financing, staff examined the specifics of creating a Tax Increment Fund to pay for the public portion of the TODs. Staff is recommending that the city hire a consultant to prepare a financial feasibility assessment for each TOD to determine the viability of TIF funding.


The staff briefing on TOD Station Area Plans is scheduled for 10:30am at today’s City Council meeting.

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