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Monday, September 8, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

South Lamar development problems get closer look

Development in the city’s South Lamar neighborhood may be approaching a tipping point. A recent report could have the city scrambling to make sure it doesn’t capsize.

“Are we just going to give up on this neighborhood, or are we going to figure out how to make it work?” asked Council Member Laura Morrison.

City Council’s Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Committee got an update of the South Lamar Neighborhood Mitigation Plan last week. The report was a result of a Council directive that asked the city to take a closer look at the transportation and flooding issues that have occurred in the area – which has seen rapid development over the past few years – and offer potential solutions.

Specifically, staff was asked to address infill issues, general problems and possible needed revisions to the Land Development Code.

The recommendations could come with a hefty price tag. Though the exact figure isn’t yet known, department heads estimate that Watershed Protection and Transportation Department studies of the area could cost between $1.5 and $3 million. They hope to get that funding in this budget, which could be finalized as soon as today.

Planning and Development Review senior planner Mark Walters explained that, in the South Lamar Neighborhood, subdivision patterns have allowed developers to build single-family homes in a desirable zip code, unlike other parts of town where the ability to do so was limited.

From 2009 to the second quarter of this year, 133 Certificates of Occupancy were issued in the neighborhood. Walters called it a “good number of housing units.”

That number is dwarfed by the 549 new residences on the way, and in the midst of development.

The rush of development has caused a number of problems for the neighborhood already, most notably in terms of transportation and flooding.

Flooding has been a serious issue in the neighborhood; even prior to the additional development, the area suffered from what Walters called “undersized, collapsed and nonexistent stormwater infrastructure.” Flooding has become worse, according to neighbors, with the increase in development.

Jorge Morales, who is an engineer with the city’s Watershed Protection Department, showed pictures of flooding in the neighborhood, taken by residents in the past year. He said his department has been concerned about development in the area for a few years and has been trying to work with developers to mitigate flooding.

Morales said that in order to expand the current project, they would need more money for consultants and more staff. He suggested that an expansion could be undertaken for about $700,000 to $1.5 million, which would allow the city to look at the entire West Bouldin Creek watershed and establish a master plan.

Short term, the city could implement a closer study of neighborhoods facing these kinds of development problems by subjecting development to more cross-departmental study. Walters said this could be done with current resources, but could extend review times. He also said the city could immediately close loopholes that allow developers to avoid stormwater regulations, and look at whether current stormwater requirements could be revised to provide more protections against flooding.

“Watershed has identified hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of needed improvements, but the funds to do that just aren’t there,” said Walters.

Poor roadway connectivity is also causing traffic issues – exacerbated by rapid development – for the area.

“I challenge you, if you are not from the neighborhood, to go from north to south and try and find your way through the neighborhood. It’s almost like a maze,” said Walters.

Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar pointed out that the “almost rural” development of the area had created unique transportation problems. By way of example, Spillar said that while driving to the meeting, a chicken had “literally” run across the road in front of his car, just blocks away from a new, dense urban development.

Spillar said one of the problems his department faces is that many of the developments are built just below the size that triggers greater scrutiny, and the buildings themselves of more infrastructure.

The area is filled with culs-de-sac and dead ends, and does not have a plan to support connectivity, which exacerbates traffic problems. Spillar acknowledged that implementing connectivity could spur more development.

Walters said that although it was “no accident” that South Lamar was facing these issues as a result of development, the factors causing the trouble might be somewhat unique to the area.

Walters said the Land Development Code is, essentially, a suburban model of development the city has tried to retrofit with urban infill options, and that hasn’t worked very well. Changing this in order to address the problems citywide could have “implications.” Namely, it might take longer for the city to review projects, and it might cost more.

“We need to demonstrate to the community that we can do infill responsibly,” said Morrison. “These kinds of steps are going to help do that.”

Walters explained that because the code doesn’t adequately address infill, the city has already missed out on opportunities to build infrastructure and mitigate effects of infill development. He suggested City Council could pass development restrictions for the area, which could add another layer to an already-unwieldy land development code. He also said the neighborhood could establish a neighborhood plan, though staff did not have the resources to embark on that mission currently.

Additionally, Walters acknowledged that an earlier attempt to craft a neighborhood plan for the area may have “generated a certain level of mistrust” between the neighborhood and the city.

As a slight complication, any changes to the Land Development Code should be coordinated with the multi-year CodeNEXT rewrite already underway.

Though not yet complete, the report asks the city for funding to hire consultants to analyze the West Bouldin Creek Watershed, revise the Transportation Criteria Manual, and develop a transportation “collector plan” for the city. Staff also recommended the creation of a stakeholder working group and a cross-departmental working group to take a closer look at the problems.

Council will weigh in on the report after it is complete. That is expected to be Sept. 15.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council Comprehensive Planning and Transportation committee: an Austin City Council sub-committee charged with, among other concerns, coverage of a set of development and transportation issues.

Planning and Development Review: The Planning and Development Review Department is responsible for Austin's city planning, preservation, and design. The department also provides development review and inspection services for the city.

South Lamar: A major thoroughfare in South Austin, South Lamar is a primary route to and from downtown, as well as one of the city's main corridors.

Transportation Department: This city department is responsible for municipal transportation planning including roadways and bikeways.

Watershed Protection Department: The city's Watershed Protection Department works to reduce the impact of floods, erosion and water pollution in the city. The department is mostly funded by the city's drainage fee.

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