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Station Area Plans win Council approval

Friday, November 14, 2008 by Mark Richardson

The City Council moved one step closer last week to approving Station Area Plans for three stops on the Capital Metro Red Line rail system scheduled to start next spring. On second reading, the Council approved areas of high-density development around planned rail stops on Martin Luther King Blvd., Lamar Blvd. at Justin Lane and Plaza Saltillo.


Designed as pedestrian friendly areas near rail stations, the Station Area Plans are planned with higher-than-normal building densities, mixed-use developments and a defined community center.


The three stations are part of seven planned along the 27-mile MetroRail system that will run from Leander to Downtown Austin. Station Area Plans are special development zones set up with incentives for builders to create small communities surrounding the rail stops.


According to city staff, people living and working in transit oriented developments (TODs) are more likely to walk, use transit, and own fewer cars. TOD households are twice as likely to not own a car and own roughly half as many cars as the “average” household.


At an individual station, TOD can increase ridership by 20 to 40 percent and even cause significant change at a regional level. People who live in a TOD are five times more likely to commute by transit than other residents.


Locations next to transit can enjoy increases in land values over 50 percent in comparison to locations away from transit stops.


One major component of the TODs is affordable housing. By granting density bonuses to developers, the city plans to require up to 25 percent of units in the TODs to be affordable to those families making 80 percent of the median family income.


According to the city’s guide to TODs, a key ingredient for walkable communities and support for transit is having sufficient residential densities to reduce walking distances between residences and other destinations. TODs should include elements such as density that is higher than the community norm located within one-quarter to one-half mile of transit; Structured parking rather than surface lots; and site designs that allow for more intense density over time.


TODs also have an active streetscape oriented towards pedestrians. A mix of uses is required to create multiple destinations around the transit station, which helps to generate pedestrian traffic. An active, lively environment can change the perception of distances, making destinations seem shorter and more walkable.


The city’s TOD guide also says transit is particularly successful in communities and neighborhoods that have defined centers, offering multiple attractions and reasons for pedestrians to frequent the area. Having different zones with distinct characteristics also helps to create a sense of place.  The density and buildings should be highest in the core near the transit station, moderating somewhat in the center that is within one-quarter mile of the transit station, and ultimately transitioning in the edge to match the character of surrounding development.


Council members are still making some minor modifications to the three Station Area Plans, allowing for building height, rules for mixed-use developments and other aesthetics of the TODs. Council plans to have a third reading on the TODs once staff has made requested changes, likely in early December.

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