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ZAP says transit part of SMART housing program missing

Wednesday, July 28, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The Zoning and Platting Commission was far from happy with its vote last week to approve an additional four plats in the 847-home Sheldon subdivision in far South Austin, a project deemed compliant for SMART housing fee waivers.


Sheldon 230 was approved under the city’s SMART housing ordinance back in 2003, and KB Homes was rushing to get a final four plats through before the preliminary plan on the subdivision expires in August. What hasn’t happened in Sheldon – either with its initial 400 homes or anticipated 225 additional lots – is to provide access to mass transit into or near the subdivision.


That didn’t sit well with commissioners, who considered the access to mass transit to be a requirement for SMART housing fee waivers. ZAP sent KB Homes’ engineer Alex Clarke to talk to Capital Metro about potential service out to the development. And while Clarke could provide the commissioners with a potential route or two and locations of possible bus stops, he had no firm date as to when, or even if, Capital Metro would start to provide bus service.


Commissioner Donna Tiemann was dissatisfied with Clarke’s answer, although she admitted her remarks were directed at a group broader than just KB Homes.


“This is a message to the development community,” Tiemann said. “In my opinion, the SMART housing program is not fulfilling its mission to provide mass transit, and we need help from the development community to put pressure on the mass transit systems to provide service to you.”


Tiemann said she was not inclined to approve any additional SMART housing preliminary plans until mass transit was firmly committed by Capital Metro. She added that such approvals of SMART housing developments also took away from the city’s battle to discourage sprawl.


The problem may go even deeper than that, though. At ZAP’s recent retreat, commissioners were troubled by the possibility that preliminary plans with SMART housing waivers had made it through the system with road grids that didn’t even have the potential turning radius for Capital Metro’s buses.


Thousands of families, some of them likely to be without cars, were moving out to an area of the city that had no guarantee of transit, Baker said. When the preliminary plan was approved in 2003, the land on which the Sheldon subdivision sits was still in the city’s extra-territorial jurisdiction.


“We’re really putting them out in the boonies, aren’t we?” Baker asked.


Contacted for comment, Todd Hemingson, who heads up Capital Metro’s planning efforts, agreed the lack of transit options near SMART housing developments was a concern for the transit agency, as well.


“From our perspective, SMART housing should be located, to the extent possible, along existing transit routes and along major corridors,” Hemingson said. “Essentially, it should be put in places where we’re going to have good transit service there anyway.”


More plans and plats that qualify for SMART housing, however, are coming through where the location has no transit service and where streets were not transit friendly, Hemingson said. A street that lack sidewalks in a neighborhood that has grouped its homes around cul-de-sacs is not an optimal circumstance for bus service, Hemingson said.


“We’re persistently trying to make the case, first of all, that you need to work with us early, so you we can hopefully guide you to places,” Hemingson said. “If you want to do a project where there’s no transit, let us help, so we can give you some input on design criteria, so that when the market develops and the ridership arrives, there’s infrastructure there to support it.”


Hemingson quoted national statistics that households in areas rich with transit options spend 9 percent of their budget on transportation. In more suburban areas, that figure jumps to 19 percent. In rural areas or areas of sprawl with limited or no transportation alternatives, up to 30 percent of a family’s income could be spent on providing transportation for family members.


“So my point is, if you’re spending 20 percent or more on transportation, maybe that ought to be taken into consideration when considering whether a location is affordable,” Hemingson said. “That’s money that could have been applied to a mortgage. It comes down to what is really affordable.”


ZAP went on to approve the four Sheldon plats on a unanimous vote, but Commissioner Sandy Baldridge noted it was only because the developer could not be held accountable for lapses that occurred during the preliminary plan process back in 2003. She encouraged early interlocal agreements for transit service; otherwise, the developer would be at the mercy of Cap Metro.


“This idea of transit accessible development is a really, really nice idea, but it has no meat on its bones,” Baldridge said after the meeting. “There’s no enforceability, and because of that, some of these projects are out there 10 and 15 years, and the developer is still at the mercy of Cap Metro.”

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