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Planners describe affordable “new urban” Airport Boulevard

Monday, October 3, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

The combination of form-based code and a new purpose for Highland Mall could turn Airport Boulevard from an urban drag into a new median-priced uptown.


Planner Scott Polikov unveiled some basics of the boulevard plan at an open house at the Carver Museum and Cultural Center on Saturday morning, almost two years after Council Member Chris Riley began pushing for an improved boulevard between Crestview Station and I-35.


“The beauty of Airport Boulevard is that it offers a full range of infill possibilities,” said Polikov, president of the Gateway Planning Group. “You’ve got very low-scale development to options for high-quality multi-family properties in small units around the existing single-family neighborhoods all the way up to the density we’ll see at the mall.”


Highland Mall was Austin’s first suburban shopping mall four decades ago, a beacon of activity in a newly vibrant North Austin. In the last decade, however, the area has looked more drab than distinctive, even with the addition of a rail stop and the mall’s potential transition from a retail center to an Austin Community College complex.


“This is one of the best locations in Austin, with rail transit and the chance to reinvent the mall,” Polikov insists. “This setting should be the template for those who want to reinvent with integrity in an aging commercial corridor. You shouldn’t have to live downtown to have good walkable urbanism.”


The key to the renaissance will be form-based code, which means defining an area by how the buildings on the street relate to one another and to the public space, rather than locking in each property by its particular zoning category.


“We shouldn’t be worried if it’s a coffee shop or a donut shop or a doctor’s office,” Polikov said. “We should be regulating the character of the developable environment and let the market do a better job of filling in the rest.”


Many of the large-scale new urbanism projects in Austin – such as Seaholm and the Domain – have been high-end, high-priced development projects. Airport Boulevard should be development on the scale that more Austin families can afford, Polikov said.


“One of the challenges of this project is to integrate a supply of median-scale urban housing that can co-exist with single-family neighborhoods,” Polikov said. “We’re looking at the broadest range of housing types with the broadest range of incomes, all co-existing in the same neighborhood.”


The Domain and the Mueller development are predictable because they have master developers. Form-based code can serve the same purpose, giving individual property owners predictability and a common vision for how the boulevard should look and function going into the future, Polikov said.


“This vision gives the developers and the neighborhood a proactive vehicle to understand the development outcome,” Polikov said. “It’s not going to be something that’s decided at a 3am zoning meeting.”


The process, however, won’t be quick. Polikov warned the audience at Saturday’s meeting. The final vision for Airport Boulevard could take decades. Planner Jana McCann, who is working with RedLeaf Properties on Highland Mall’s redevelopment, said the mall transition will be slow.


“We’re not going to all of a sudden see big changes, but as it changes, you’re going to see more dense, compact mixed-use development with ACC as the core anchor,” McCann said. “You’re probably going to see other uses in the mall integrated into the existing building to support student life there.”


The area in and around Highland Mall will change as leases end, McCann said. RedLeaf Properties has options on property around the mall. So the land around the ACC site could end up being mixed-use properties, combining residential development with new options for office space.


“I think the neighborhood plan is a great basis to take off from, to envision the area in its new life,” McCann said. “It’s already a pretty good flexible blueprint, so we’re not going to have to change a lot from the current entitlements.”


Neighbors will get a more detailed picture of the possibilities for Airport Boulevard at a community forum tonight. The design team will present the conceptual master plan – both transit- and non-transit-oriented – during a meeting at Our Lady’s Maronite Catholic Church, 1320 E. 51st Street, from 5:30 to 7:30pm. For more information, go to

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