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New working group eyes town centers to solve affordability pressures

Monday, June 22, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

A new working group from four of the city’s commissions hopes to identify ways that the town center planning concept spelled out in Imagine Austin could be used to combat affordability issues driving veterans, artists and other vulnerable populations out of the city.

Over the next two months, members from the Arts Commission, Music Commission, Economic Prosperity Commission, and the Commission on Veterans Affairs will be named to the Imagine Austin town centers working group. A kickoff meeting of the working group is expected to be held by the end of July, which will lead to decisions on its end goal and the timeline.

Amy Noel, chair of the Economic Prosperity Commission, said recent conversations with Arts Commission Chair Jaime Castillo resulted in the realization that the two groups have some of the same goals, and that the town center concept could be used specifically to create affordable housing, arts spaces and access to opportunities that aren’t widely available through the city.

Town centers, as described in Imagine Austin, are planning areas with 10,000-30,000 residents, between 5,000 and 20,000 jobs, and a mix of housing, office buildings and mixed-use properties, ideally located near transit.

The Mueller development in North Central Austin is identified as an example of a town center, and Noel said the Colony Park project in East Austin is another example of the kind of development that would address a variety of affordability and opportunity problems, if such developments could be replicated in each City Council district.

“If you look at Colony Park, it’s got the key point of access to transit, affordable housing, job training and wraparound services that, as people are looking to come from a space of unmet needs, they find self sufficiency and support,” she said. “In many ways that is the blueprint. We also want to look at, if we’re building a Colony Park right next to Mount Bonnell, what does that need to look like, and how do we ensure that the population that needs to live there is an embedded part of the community?”

The Imagine Austin plan doesn’t spell out possible incentives or planning consideration for town centers that could make them more hospitable for arts spaces. The city’s proposed new Land Development Code includes sections that will eventually have specific language about music venues, theaters and other spaces that could be considered community benefits and would trigger higher density considerations if included by developers.

Castillo said he hopes to gather information about the effectiveness of using creative spaces as anchors to new developments in place of restaurants, which are more often used as anchors but have high failure rates and don’t invite as broad a mix of occupants.

“Imagine Austin had already identified regional centers and town centers as a way to alleviate affordability and economic pressures on the core of downtown, and making sure that the whole of Austin is benefiting,” he said. “We felt it was something that was worth putting as many brains as we can on this idea, and try to brainstorm more. We’re at the beginning stages and at this point we really just want to get in the same room.”

With many creative spaces facing possible closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Castillo said looking toward town centers that are years away from being created will help city leaders move away from only addressing immediate crises.

“I don’t want to get stuck in reacting mode. We’re seeing what the pandemic is doing and seeing how much longer the effects of the pandemic are going to be, and I don’t want to just react to that,” he said. “I want to build something that is looking toward the future and I see this as an opportunity to do that. Let’s make sure the whole city can enjoy the music and arts that everyone comes to Austin for, because it shouldn’t just be for tourists: it should be for all the people living here.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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