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National design experts envision the future for lake’s south shore

Thursday, June 7, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

Imagine a place between bustling South Congress and downtown along the south side of Lady Bird Lake where visitors would travel by streetcars to enjoy a fully terraced riverfront green space and comfortably watch Austin’s infamous bats, boats and concerts from the shore.


Such was the talk on Wednesday about the work of a national design panel, or Sustainable Design Assistance Team, that spent three days this week listening to community feedback and assessing the strengths of a sliver of waterfront known as South Shore Central running along Lady Bird Lake from South First Street to south of the Congress Avenue and beyond. The waterfront sub-district includes existing buildings such as the Hyatt Regency, Austin American-Statesman, One Texas Center, Embassy Suites and the Texas Department of Transportation’s district office.


The team members, under the leadership of professor and regional planner Harris Steinberg, presented a broad overview of strengths and challenges, ideas and suggestions on South Shore Central to a healthy crowd of attendees at the Mexican-American Cultural Center on Wednesday night.


Some ideas, such as the inclusion of a streetcar system down the middle of Congress Avenue, were intended to provoke discussion. Other suggestions, such as breaking up larger blocks into smaller spaces, mirror trends in other major urban cities. And some points, such as creating a bike path down South First Street instead of Congress, simply recognized current patterns of use in the area.


The team’s key points included building a plan to protect the current waterfront, creating development that balanced scale with community benefits and the suggestion of signature elements for the area, such as festival streets, that could be blocked off for street fairs and concerts as well as an expansive great lawn that sweeps down to the lake and provides a venue for vistas and events.


No one should confuse a city building code for a vision, Steinberg told the group. That’s an easy trap for communities. A code tells developers what can and cannot be put on a piece of land, but it doesn’t envision what a community wants from an area.


“You’re not just doing the code,” Steinberg said. “You’re doing 15 or 20 things simultaneously. It’s policy and programs and projects and partnering with people, reorganizing groups and finding funding. It’s talking to your congressional delegation. The code is almost the least of it and the last of it. You have to have a good one to make sense for developers, but it’s not the thing you have to rely on.”


The team also urged the city to end the use of variances in that portion of the overlay. Height should be built into the final plans for the waterfront sub-district and available to those who are willing to subsidize green space and affordable housing, up to 15 percent for each project. The suggested scale for the waterfront was between 6 and 10 stories with high density but plenty of surrounding green space, making the scale substantial but less looming than downtown across the river.


The downside to the discussion was that the vision could not be built with private finances alone. These projects take some amount of subsidizing from public entities. The biggest barrier in cost, beyond land, was the expense of underground parking.


Numbers run on three different types of projects – estimated cost against potential financing scenarios – all indicated the need for a public partner through a vehicle such as a public investment district. All would bring jobs and tax base, but none could be financed in the current market situation.


The team provided some rough numbers for area capacity under the plan: enough new residential space for 5,600 people; creation of hotel space to provide an additional 2,000 rooms; new office space capacity for another 1,200 employees; and retail that could support another 1,360 jobs. All of it would bring additional property tax dollars to the city.


The team’s presentation will be posted to the city website today. A final report from the design team, with additional information and support material, will be presented to the city within the next few months.

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