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Consultant starts process for planning Lady Bird Lake’s South Shore

Wednesday, May 15, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

Is Downtown Austin really the pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly, green space-treasuring, family-loving Mecca it claims to be? Perhaps some of it is. But, there is one stretch of area along Lady Bird Lake which, for all its potential of possessing these characteristics, could realistically end up becoming a poorly developed piece of prime land.

That is, unless Austin leaders move quickly.

So says one nationally-renowned urban and regional land-use planner at Monday night’s Waterfront Planning Advisory Board meeting at the Hyatt Regency on Barton Springs Road.

John Fregonese of Oregon-based Fregonese Associates spoke to a packed ballroom of city leaders, media and concerned citizens about potential future development scenarios along Lady Bird Lake’s South Shore Central. This is an 80-acre area of land next to Auditorium Shores Park, from South 1st to East Bouldin Creek along the lake border.

Right now, the area leaves much to be desired; the city characterizes South Shore Central as being  made up of parking lots or aging auto-oriented development, “superblocks” that keep walkers from easily getting to the waterfront, and challenged mobility connections.

But, city leaders are working to fix the problem through a push called the Sustainable Places Project. The HUD-funded project–which will soon allow the public to play an interactive role – utilizes a 3D, computer-based tool that gives city leaders a look at various redevelopment scenarios in areas of Austin, Dripping Springs, Elgin, Hutto and Lockhart.

South Shore Central is a demonstration site on which the analytic tool is being used. On Monday night, Fregonese gave the audience a taste of the tool in a provocative presentation of three possible ways South Shore Central could develop in the upcoming years. A base zoning scenario was compared with a development scenario reached by a team of experts from the American Institute of Architects called the Sustainable Design Assessment Team, or SDAT. A group of UT Austin graduate students also offered a redesign of South Shore Central.

Fregonese, whose company has been commissioned to head a regional visioning process for Central Texas with a focus on Austin, analyzed all three scenarios ahead of Monday night’s presentation and shared his opinions.

“This is probably the most studied 80 acres in Central Texas,” he said. While Fregonese complimented the city on the work that has already been done to enhance South Shore Central, he also warned that the city has been stagnated, having made no radical progress in developing the area beyond the 1986 Combined Waterfront Overlay Ordinance and the Town Lake Corridor Comprehensive Plan from 1989.

“There’s been a lot of great thinking but no change in the official documents,” he said. “Almost everything works. You really have a hot market here. That means you better not dally if you want to guide some of these things. This (area) has energy and movement.” When coming up with development scenarios, the groups considered criteria like walkability, pedestrian access to Lady Bird Lake, improved water quality through green infrastructure, and quality urban design.

South Shore is one of the iconic places in the country,” Fregonese said. “You’ve got your bat bridge, beautiful views, recreation and open spaces, access to downtown and jobs. But right now, there’s poor connectivity. It’s not designed with pedestrians in mind and access to the lake is unclear and informal. There is already development happening at the ‘X’ at Barton Springs and Riverside. Opportunities are slipping away.”

The scenarios ranged from an uninspired but workable base zoned future to more aesthetically pleasing scenarios by the SDAT and UT student team with pedestrian walkways, running and cycling platforms, bridges, inventive urban rail positioning, mid-rise living spaces, green roofs and gardens, and easy lake access. One major pitfall to all three scenarios included less than affordable rents near $2,000 per month (compared to the current average of nearly $1,000, according to Fregonese.)

Everyone seemed to be in agreement that the Austin American-Statesman building blocks the view in the middle of what could be an oasis of lake waters and greenery.

After the presentation, board members voiced concerns like development constraints brought on by planned unit developments and zoning limitations.

“How do we turn these scenarios into codes and ordinances,” board member Cory Walton asked rhetorically, while board member Roy Mann said, “In most cities, the river corridor is an eternal work in progress.”

Also at issue – the cost for these kinds of improvements. Fregonese said he didn’t know, but the cost could potentially run the city anywhere from $75 to $200 million.

The next steps include playing with the various scenarios using the software tool which is expected to be live online in about one month, and getting input from the community. Then, board members could take ideas to the City Council.

“The scenarios are something to learn from,” Fregonese said. “A vision is what you need. Improvements will come later. The city of Austin is very well-equipped to do this.”

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