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Specifics for downtown sub-districts unveiled

Monday, October 12, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Planners from ROMA Design Group unveiled the specifics of downtown’s seven proposed sub-districts on Saturday, but the question in one smaller session returned to the core issue of downtown planning: Can density exist side by side with current buildings?

Attendance at Saturday’s workshop session was heavy on downtown residents from the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association, but it was Fred Schmidt of downtown art and gift gallery Wild About Music who raised that key question.

According to ROMA’s estimates, downtown has seen only half the development it can handle. Right now, 30 million square feet of space is developed. If every property of a quarter block or more were developed to its highest zoned use, another 37 million square feet of development could be added downtown.

For each sub-district, consultant ROMA Design Group estimated the opportunity for additional land assembly. In the Core/Waterfront District, for example, the key and most intensely urbanized area of downtown, ROMA estimated the area could handle an additional 60 additional assembled properties of at least a quarter block, for another 14.7 million square feet of developed space.

To those in the area, like Schmidt, the low-slung historic Sixth Street district is what needs to be preserved. High-rises on either side of Sixth – on Fifth and Seventh streets — might be visionary, but they might also overwhelm the charm of Sixth Street and create a canyon effect.

“I know we’re a property-rights oriented kind of state, but when you talk about development like this, it’s about only one thing: maximizing money instead of considering the cares and concerns that we as a community care about,” Schmidt said. “But when you look at Sixth and Brazos, and they’re talking about a 77-story tower directly across from the Driskill; it’s at the entryway to Sixth Street, and it creates this type of canyon effect with all these tall modern buildings.”

But according to Jim Adams of the consulting group ROMA, when people walk down Sixth Street, they won’t be looking at Fifth and Seventh streets; They’ll be looking at the street-level streetscape. 

“These one-, two-, and three-story buildings predominate on Sixth Street,” Adams said. “I would be more concerned about the issues in the warehouse district. You have protections in place with Sixth Street of the National Register District – of course, it would be stronger with a local historic district – but you already have things in place that will preserve the character.”

Here is a brief description of the seven downtown sub-districts:

Waterfront/Core District – This is the dominant, and largest, potential downtown district , comprising Congress Avenue, Sixth Street, and the waterfront. Along with the designation of 14.7 million in potential development, ROMA also set other goals, such as restoration of the city’s original squares, encouraging a better mix of ground-level uses, and encouraging live-music venues.

The goal would be to incentivize hotel and office use. The dominance of cocktail lounges has also been considered an issue on Sixth Street. Too many cocktail lounges means the street is dead during the day, Adams said. Some of the discussion centered around carving out a conditional overlay for cocktail lounges. The street-level pedestrian experience should be improved along Congress and Sixth Street, according to the recommendations unveiled to the group.

Northwest District – This is the area where some of the first residential neighborhoods of Austin were developed. It is unique in form and character, Adams said. For good or bad, many of its existing houses have been converted into offices. Most development is confined to 60 feet or less, with the exception of the Chase building at the corner of 15th and Nueces streets.

While about one million square feet of additional space was identified for potential development, neighborhood characteristics should be preserved in the area, Adams said. He showed examples of infill development in Seattle and Vancouver that put new mid-rise and older residential development side by side.

Historic buildings should be preserved, Adams said, and emphasis should be placed on residential development and commercial businesses to serve those neighborhoods.

Uptown/Capitol District – While much of this area is state-owned land, ROMA still sees development potential of at least 6.2 million square feet, spread across 28 assembled parcels of at least a quarter block.

Adams estimated that 18 acres in this district is state-owned, some of it dominated by state-owned parking garages on Lavaca and Guadalupe. In fact, this is one area of downtown with what Adams called a surplus of parking.

The streetscape in this area is disjointed and tired. With the exception of the Capitol grounds, it also lacks open space, Adams said.

The state would be a key stakeholder in improving the area by encouraging a broader diversity of uses beyond office space. The goal would be to create some kind of street scene. Adams noted that the state has recognized the underutilization of the area and even completed its own master plan of the Capitol complex in 1989, a plan Adams praised and ROMA has encouraged.

The plan would encourage mid-rise development along North Congress leading up to the Capitol. It would be a significant change to the area, Adams said.

“It’s very different from what you see out there today,” he said.

Market/Lamar District – This area, which abuts the Old West Austin neighborhood, is certainly of the most concern to the neighborhood association. Adams noted the transition of the area from ‘30s- and ‘40s-style strip malls to higher-density commercial use along the Lamar Boulevard corridor.

ROMA identified nine assembled properties that could add another 1.4 million square feet of development to this district. Adams called for strengthening the mixed-used experience, especially as it applies to ground-level shops and restaurants and the pedestrian experience.

Adams noted that flood control along Shoal Creek remains an issue in the area. But Shoal Creek also presents an attractive opportunity for development. Some development, such as the Shoal Creek Saloon and the West Gable Lofts, already orient to the creek.

Lower Shoal Creek District – This district is the higher-density area along Shoal Creek and the Lady Bird Lake waterfront that includes condo developments such as Austin City Lofts, the Monarch, and Spring. The district would also extend over to the Seaholm redevelopment and new library site.

ROMA estimates another three million square feet in development, across a dozen properties, could be added to the district. This would include the Seaholm site, which is currently being redeveloped.

Access and mobility is a key concern in this area, especially the lack of a grid and the discontinuation of various streets. Master plans for Seaholm and Green will need to address the connectivity of the street grid, as well as the seamless inclusion of the Lance Armstrong bikeway route and transit into the overall plan.

Waller Creek District – A separate process is under way, of course, for the Waller Creek district. And, to date, Waller Creek has been far from an amenity.

Due to flood-control issues, much of the land in this area along Waller Creek is underutilized. ROMA estimates 7.6 million square feet of potential development across 21 sites. That includes nine acres of public land.

This area will be impacted by the Waller Creek tunnel project. Goals noted by ROMA, as outlined in stakeholder meetings, include stronger linkages for bicycle and pedestrian routes along the corridor to Lady Bird Lake and the University of Texas. Open-space value should be encouraged along the creek, Adams said.

Higher density should be encouraged in certain areas where Capitol Corridor views are not affected, Adams said. This area could also be a good candidate for lower-rise, affordable live/work housing, possibly on public land, which could serve groups such as artists and musicians. Centralized parking should be encouraged.

Creative and cultural spaces in the area along Waller Creek should also be encouraged, Adams said. An additional goal would be to improve Palm Park as a family-friendly open space, possibly with an interactive water element.

Rainey Street District – While much of Rainey Street remains intact, this area has also seen quite a bit of new high-rise development since it was up-zoned to a Central Business District, Adams noted. In a subsequent comment period, some attendees questioned the wisdom of such development in a National Register Historic District.

ROMA pointed out nine assembled properties in the area that, if fully developed, would add 2.9 million square feet of development to the district. Challenges in the area include narrow streets and a lack of connectivity to downtown, Adams said. The area also needs an orderly transition from single-family to higher-density, which has already been achieved in places such as Vancouver, Adams noted.

Goals would include establishing an infrastructure plan with adequate roadways and utilities. Streets should be extended to connect Rainey to the Convention Center and Palm Park, creating more of a grid pattern for the area. The mature canopy of trees should be preserved and stronger pedestrian linkages established.

The warehouse district was not included as a separate district. Instead, Jana McCann of ROMA spoke about it in the context of historic districts. McCann offered a separate presentation on transit and reconfiguration of roadways.

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