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City aims to have Airport Boulevard corridor plan on 2012 ballot

Thursday, December 1, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

With a broad vision completed, the city has taken the Airport Boulevard corridor plan back out to the community for input, with a goal of having the first road transportation projects ready for action next fall. Improvements to the corridor could be part of the Nov. 2012 Bond Election.

 

About 30 people attended an open house in East Austin to discuss mobility and development within the three zones of the corridor: the upper Airport Boulevard section between the Crestview rail station and Highland Mall; a second section passing Mueller between Interstate 35 and Martin Luther King Boulevard; and a third segment, much of it under state control, between Martin Luther King Boulevard and US 183.

 

The general consensus among attendees appeared to be that the corridor needed to change, especially around Highland Mall. But residents also were concerned with how much wider the corridor might be, how new development would be buffered with neighborhoods and whether bicycle and pedestrian accommodations would significantly slow traffic flow.

 

The approach to the two-mile Upper Airport Boulevard segment, in particular, will be two-pronged, said Alan Holt, who works in the urban design division of the city’s Planning and Development Review Department. One team is considering the mobility issues of the corridor while a second team is working on redevelopment opportunities in the corridor, which may need to be funded, in part, by a tax-increment financing district.

 

Combining the two efforts will take a long-term redevelopment view of the corridor, possibly 20 years into the future, Holt said. Each small incremental step, as its implemented, would be part of a larger vision.

 

“Once we have created a road system with the public right of way—and mobility really works much better for us—that’s also going to have implications for the kind of development we can have on the corridor,” Holt said. “So we’re taking it a step further. What are those redevelopment opportunities and how much that go hand-in-hand with our plans for upper Airport.”

 

To date, the consulting teams have assessed the corridor and met with stakeholders to draft a broad vision for Airport Boulevard. The next step, currently being completed, is the design and planning of the corridor. Next spring, staff plans to present zoning changes (called form-based code) so the corridor plan would be ready for action by next fall.

 

At Tuesday night’s meeting, a variety of possible scenarios for transition zones – from low to high density – were presented for consideration. Holt also presented some schematics for how Highland Mall, with its 40 acres of empty parking lot, might actually look and feel if it were turned into a multi-purpose urban village.

 

Holt also presented a potential scenario for Middle Fiskville Road, which could possibly be reconfigured as a transit-oriented development anchored by Capital Metro bus service and presumably the existing Greyhound bus station. All of it would be complemented by bicycle and pedestrian options along the roadway.

 

Audience members were most concerned about how wide Airport Boulevard might become. Currently it is a four-lane suburban roadway in each direction. To make it a more walkable and multi-modal, the lanes and sidewalks might have to be reconfigured. Consultants told stakeholders at last night’s meeting that the roadbed is not expected to be wider than the current road and right-of-way.

 

On the mobility side, Kimley-Horn planner Joe Willhite had a number of short-term suggestions to make as well as some potential cross-sections to show the community. Those short-term projects, which could be folded into the city’s proposed 2012 bond issue, would improve traffic flow.

 

Willhite provided a number of short-term solutions that appeared to be well received by the audience: tightening up the right turns off Airport onto and off of Koenig Lane; fixing the signal timing at 53½ Street; removing the signal at Clarkson and 51st Street, and replacing them with stop signs to allow left-hand turns; dual left turn lanes onto Airport Boulevard from Aldrich, Manor and MLK Boulevard; and shared through and left lanes at Springdale and Bolm.

 

A number of changes to improve pedestrian and bicycle access also were proposed: adding a single at Huntland; putting beacons, such as those in front of the Austin Energy building, to allow pedestrians to cross at Highland Mall, 55th Street, north of Oak Springs and at 40th/Antone; and some type of signal at Schieffer and Zack Scott that also would allow pedestrian crossings.

 

Longer term plans would include medians and trails, address bus access issues and possibly reconfigure the crossing under Interstate 35 in order to blend the east and west sides of the corridor. Ultimately, the city may also want to take control of the portion of the corridor currently maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation and make some use of the Elgin rail line, which is located near Springdale on the corridor’s most eastern edge.

 

Airport Boulevard is one of five corridor upgrades the city is considering: the others being East Riverside, Interstate 35, Martin Luther King Boulevard and  North Lamar/Burnet. The next step in the process for the Airport corridor plan is to go before the Planning Commission, Design Commission and Urban Transportation Commission, starting in January.

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