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Project Connect panel looks at planning, equity concerns attached to transit system

Wednesday, September 29, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

With the city and county moving forward on the assortment of transit and community development projects included in Project Connect, leaders involved want community members to realize the many other public and private interests that play into the multibillion-dollar effort.

The local real estate and development community that gathered for a recent Urban Land Institute Austin panel heard about how housing, health care, equity and economic opportunity will also be top of mind in the coming years.

As the three-member panel discussed the future of how the city approves and plans for transit-oriented development centers or how the $300 million dedicated toward equity and affordable housing will be used, moderator Mark Bulmash said there needs to be more talk about the full scope of factors connected to the transit expansion.

“We don’t just talk about affordable housing. We really need a systems approach here … it’s about jobs, health care, transportation and all these issues that are being interrelated,” said Bulmash, president of mixed-use and master plan development for Presidium. “All of them need to be considered because we’re applying something incredibly complicated to this city. I’m glad to hear we’re looking at so many aspects that most people don’t even think about.”

Peter Mullan, chief of architecture and urban design for the Austin Transit Partnership, characterized Project Connect as an assortment of programs including rail lines, bus system expansions and the funding allocated to prevent displacement of residents and local businesses.

Mullan said work is taking place on a variety of fronts including the planning for a new transit station at McKalla Place and environmental impact assessment on the new Orange and Blue transit lines.

While acknowledging the need to gather community feedback on what existing residents need and want around transit corridors, he said local leaders will have to listen while making decisions to keep projects on schedule and budget.

“The faster we move, the more we can build and the sooner we can provide these services to the community. We have to be able to be listening at the same time we are moving forward while incorporating these issues into our planning,” he said. “To me this is really a process of complexity management, and we have to be able to do multiple things simultaneously while letting each of those things inform one another.”

That stance drew some pushback from Nefertitti Jackmon, the city’s manager for displacement mitigation, who said historically marginalized communities shouldn’t be shut out of another wave of growth and economic opportunity.

“As we’re seeing the growth in Austin, historically Black and brown communities and vulnerable communities have been shut out of that economic growth and so we want to do something different and center the voices of the community members, to hear from them what they want,” she said.

“We deferred to them to hear what the priority purposes and places were, and what we heard was typically the Eastern Crescent where Blacks had historically been relegated to, as well as areas around the lines being created. There are priorities there where we will direct the investment.”

On the matter of possible friction between neighborhoods located near proposed transit corridors, consultant Stan Wall with HR&A Advisors said the city needs to take steps now to help forthcoming transit-oriented developments create jobs and other opportunities for those who live nearby.

“It doesn’t have to be confrontational when it comes to having density next to existing communities. Those communities might have certain desires and want a type of retail that doesn’t exist today, but the retailer doesn’t want to be there because the demographics aren’t there in terms of density. It’s connecting the needs of the community with what’s also beneficial to the developer.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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