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Council adopts East Riverside master plan

Friday, February 26, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The City Council voted to move forward on the East Riverside corridor master plan last night without tying the future plan to current compatibility standards.


The vote came in two motions: one intended to declare the eastside urban roadway between Interstate 35 and Riverside Drive a core transit corridor and a second motion amended the corridor plan into the city’s current Comprehensive Plan. Both motions cleared the way for Riverside Drive to be a future rail corridor.


Density along the Riverside Drive, however, has always been an issue, and community leaders have been resistant to additional development that would not support the preservation of single-family housing, as expressed in the existing East Riverside/Oltorf Combined (EROC) neighborhood plan. A second, smaller group of Spanish-speaking apartment dwellers in the area were concerned that new development along the corridor would price them out of their affordable housing.


The Planning Commission, after an extensive subcommittee dialogue with neighborhood residents, added the compatibility standards at the request of the neighborhood planning team. Keeping strict adherence to those standards would require a 540-foot separation between homes and multi-story buildings.


In comments to Council, EROC planning team member Toni House noted that the balance of single-family and multi-family housing along the Riverside corridor remained a 90-10 split, with multi-family dominating the corridor. House offered a chart that outlined existing and projected housing totals along the corridor that well exceeded the ratios suggested by Capital Metro for a viable rail corridor.


“If Riverside doesn’t have the density, where in Austin is it?” House asked.


EROC members were careful to say, however, that they appreciated the work of staff and a consultant on a Riverside corridor plan. As it was pointed out, the corridor plan was initiated at EROC’s urging in order to avoid speculative spot zoning.


House argued that additional compatibility provisions, such as setbacks and vegetative buffers, should be an integral part of the corridor master plan. Planners Molly Alexander and Erica Leak, however, had suggested shifting specific compatibility standards for the corridor to a proposed regulating plan.


Alexander and Leak answered a number of pre-hearing questions from Council members that appeared to set the stage for the final vote: No, the master plan would not sign away, or even include, entitlements. Yes, density bonuses would still be on the table for discussion at some future date, possibly focusing on the benefits desired by the community, such as green open space. And, yes, a regulating plan would have extensive public vetting and review before a final Council vote.


Asked by Council Member Bill Spelman to describe the regulating plan process, Alexander said that staff would likely start the discussion with some draft code language, conduct a round of public forums on the larger details of that code and then refine the code in very detailed regulations for final approval.


Mayor Lee Leffingwell expressed a strong desire to see more specifics on the design standards for vertical mixed-use development as the East Riverside corridor plan moved forward. Ironically, Commissioner Richard Weiss had raised that exact topic at the Design Commission –VMU design standards – earlier in the week.


As had been the case in earlier hearings, a variety of urban planners, architects and some community members expressed support for the East Riverside corridor plan. Once the hearing was closed, Council Member Sheryl Cole wasted no time moving for the recommendation of city staff, minus the Planning Commission recommendations, a motion that Spelman seconded.


Laura Morrison, the Council member most likely to side with EROC, did insert direction to city staff to incorporate additional provisions into the light rail study: finding the density numbers necessary to make light rail work along the corridor and then adjusting compatibility standards based upon that target density.


Council Member Chris Riley, in his support of the motion, noted that the Riverside corridor was not being singled out any more than any other transit stops in the city. Planning has always incorporated increased density around transit nodes, whether the rail stop was on Riverside Drive or in any other area of the city.


Still, Riley acknowledged that, with urban rail, the stops along Riverside Drive would be more frequent than those of Capital Metro’s Red Line, and city planners would have to be more cognizant of how rail stops related to each other. The Riverside corridor master plan suggests four rail stops along the corridor.


Leffingwell closed the discussion by saying that compatibility was not a strict formula. In the case of the downtown plan, Judges Hill had needed accommodations that were somewhat different than other neighborhoods in the city. So city staff had worked to come up with a suitable compromise. That would be the kind of goal that would be set out in the Riverside plan, too, Leffingwell said.


Both motions passed on a vote of 7-0.

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