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Monday, September 16, 2019 by Ryan Thornton
Commission stresses need for better TOD planning along Green Line
The Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority is studying the potential for placing transit-oriented development districts along Project Connect’s rail commuter Green Line, but the Planning Commission says that effort may be somewhat futile without a concentrated push to create vibrant communities along the corridor.
Looking to similar efforts along the existing Red Line rail corridor, Commissioner James Shieh pointed to the Lakeline transit-oriented development, which he said has a mix of housing types yet has failed to realize the mixed-use vibrancy the city and agency had anticipated.
In the absence of more robust standards for transit-oriented developments, Shieh said the city needs a strategy if it wants to create truly vibrant hubs along the Green Line corridor and not repeat previous mistakes.
The Green Line transit-oriented development study involves analysis of eight potential rail stations on roughly 15 miles of track. The initial proposed route will stretch northeast from the existing Downtown station to Bell Farms, east of Manor. The study is funded by a $600,000 grant from the Federal Transit Administration.
With segments of the Green Line corridor still undeveloped, commissioners worried the risk may be equally high with this rail line. Even in the case of Colony Park, a potential Green Line stop that already has a community master plan, Commissioner Conor Kenny cited concerns that the development will lack the vibrancy and housing density needed to support the commuter rail costs.
Also making reference to the Red Line, Kenny said the route has a relatively high operations and maintenance cost per rider, using up funds that could otherwise be used for enhanced bus service. Without a push to ensure higher densities along the Green Line, Kenny said, the route could end up with similarly high costs per rider.
One solution, Kenny said, is for the transit agency to make clear demands for the densities required to support the rail project: “If Cap Metro isn’t the one coming and telling the city ‘you really need to do this to have a viable transit line,’ nobody’s going to be telling the city to do that and we’re not going to get the land use planning that we need.”
However, Dave Couch, program manager for Project Connect, said it’s not the agency’s place to make decisions or recommendations to the city on land use patterns, even around transit stops.
Ultimately, Couch said, population density is only one of the metrics used when the Federal Transit Administration evaluates transit proposals. It also considers factors like economic development potential, cost constraints and presence of affordable housing along the corridor. Couch said it’s up to the city to prioritize among those metrics in order to qualify for funding.
Even so, Jacob Calhoun, project manager for the Green Line transit-oriented development study, said the agency is collaborating with the cities of Austin and Manor to develop and refine transit-oriented development guidelines and even set the stage for future zoning along the corridor.
As the corridor is developed in the future, Calhoun said the standards will help shape the character of that growth in support of transit use even before the Green Line is complete. An example of that guidance, he said, is considering the transit user in a broader context: “One of the things that we talk about with the project is that as soon as someone gets off of any kind of transit they’re instantly a pedestrian, so how do we make it more pedestrian oriented?”
Part of that equation is collaboration. Calhoun said the agency is leveraging synergies in support of transit by bringing on people who are working on the city’s Land Development Code rewrite and affordable housing strategies.
At the same time, acknowledging Shieh’s concern that housing alone won’t generate the intensity needed along the corridor, Calhoun said the project team is reaching out to potential developers to promote the growth of complete communities as opposed to a series of moderately dense residential neighborhoods.
Once the study is complete, recommendations for specific transit-oriented developments will be brought to the city for public hearing and consideration of City Council.
“This is a regional transit vision that we’re trying to implement,” Calhoun said. “The Green Line is a very key component to that kind of regional aspect, providing a way for people to get into Austin and be able to get out towards Manor and Elgin as well.”
Map courtesy of Capital Metro.
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