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Council sets stage for development of North Burnet/Gateway area

Monday, October 20, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

At last week’s meeting, the Austin City Council seeded the ground for the growth of the North Burnet/Gateway neighborhood, an area city leaders have come to refer to as Austin’s second downtown.

Of course, the creation of the second downtown may be years into the future and contingent upon the buy-in of developers. The potential build-out could take as long as three decades. At its maximum, North Burnet/Gateway could see up to 80,000 residents.

Even the plan to create a plan took time. As Molly Scarborough, the manager of the plan, noted in her presentation, the creation of the North Burnet/Gateway plan has been under way for six years now. In addition, it already includes the approval of a major master plan last November.

On Thursday, Council took the next step: a public hearing on a base zoning district; the lifting of interim regulations; the exempting of North Burnet/Gateway from the development limitations of most neighborhoods; and the establishment of associated use and site development regulations. All for an area that is roughly the size of four downtowns.

“It’s larger than downtown, the state office complex and UT combined,” Scarborough told Council at a briefing last week. “So it’s quite a large planning area.”

Scarborough said city staff realized back in 2002 that the 2,300-acre North Burnet/Gateway hardly fit the definition of a typical neighborhood plan. It had no single-family residences. The current – if not future – uses were primarily industrial or commercial warehouses. However, sandwiched within the boundaries were locations that would provide good anchors for the development: the UT Pickle campus; ACC Northridge campus; and the future location of The Domain.

It also had two rail lines running through it, providing a tantalizing hint that this massive slice of city poised for redevelopment could someday be a major transit-oriented node for the city’s north side. Two rail lines – including the commuter rail bound for downtown intersect at North Burnet/Gateway. It is one of only three places where that type of rail activity occurs in the city; the other locations being downtown and Robinson Ranch.

Therefore, the city brought in a consultant to integrate the land use, transportation and urban design elements into a single master plan, Scarborough said. That master plan – which focused on a transit-oriented urban neighborhood — was adopted last November.

The North Burnet/Gateway plan breaks the large master plan into several sub-districts. Without going into the minutiae of the plan, tract by tract, North Burnet/Gateway has a number of general attributes: a high-density mixed-use neighborhood using a potentially a new zoning category somewhere between single family and downtown. The plan also ramps up the need for proper street connectivity for the area. Some areas – such as the highly negotiated Domain development and various pieces of land owned by the city – are not included in new plans.

The regulating plan considered by the Council was based on standards set out in the master plan, Scarborough said. For instance, it considers various types of roadways most appropriate for the development: pedestrian-priority collectors; urban roadways; and highways. Zoning categories also vary by intensity, based on the distance from the transit station.

The intention is to create density in the North Burnet/Gateway area that is found nowhere outside downtown, with height stair-stepped from 120 feet up to 360 feet in transit-oriented districts. Density bonuses are modeled on interim density bonuses for downtown. The goal – although it was not part of last week’s recommendations – was 25 percent affordable housing. That was the recommendation of the Planning Commission, and supported by staff.

The plan generated modest discussion. For instance, Council approved the Planning Commission recommendation of $10-per-square-foot for fee in lieu of charges, versus the lower $6-per-square-foot recommended by staff. That was the only change approved by Council. The fee in lieu could be granted administratively instead of requiring Council approval.

The code ordinance and regulating plan were approved on first reading only. Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Director Greg Guernsey told Council it would probably take a month to consult with stakeholders before the item was brought back to Council. That would place the item, at the soonest, on the Nov. 20 agenda.

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