City Council to Central Austin: Drop Dead16 December 2013
With its 7-0 unanimous vote on December 12th, endorsing Project Connect’s deeply flawed plan for an initial urban rail line, the Austin City Council made it clear it wasn’t just abandoning good sense and a reliance on sound, fact-based planning — unfortunately, the Council vote continued a pattern of recent policies by the City of Austin (COA) aimed at abandoning Central Austin itself and the core neighborhoods in the heart of the city, concentrating instead on predominantly promoting peripheral areas mostly to the east. In effect, the Council’s action was a vote that said to Central Austin: Drop Dead.
This pattern appears to reveal a major switch from past policies, which have aimed at strengthening the central core city and addressing mobility problems in the city’s major local traffic arteries, Guadalupe St. and Lamar Blvd. For example, urban rail plans in both 1993 and 2000 focused on this corridor, and Guadalupe-Lamar-South Congress was a major focus of the “rapid bus” plan (now MetroRapid).
This switch in policy is borne out not just by the Council’s Dec. 12th vote, and not just by the efforts of Project Connect and its supporters to depict Central Austin and its “backbone” travel corridor (West Campus-Guadalupe-Lamar) as more or less “withering away” demographically and economically (in complete disregard for the factual evidence). The pattern of neglecting the central heart of the city has become increasingly clear from COA’s preferential policy emphasis — expressed through tax incentives, infrastructure investment, long-range planning, and special projects focused exclusively on encouraging development in peripheral areas such as Mueller and East Riverside.
While the core area itself (downtown, Capitol Complex, UT campus) has been the focus of densification and new public development initiatives (e.g., Seaholm, Waller Creek project, proposed UT medical teaching facility), most of the city’s established core neighborhoods, both north and south of the core area, have been virtually written off in recent years.
This is well illustrated by the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, adopted by the City Council in June 2012. The pattern is particularly evident in the Growth Concept Centers and Corridors Map, Appendix D, pp. A-29 through A-31, shown in the graphic below. (The relative impact of “centers” proposed in the Imagine Austin plan was an important metric in Project Connect’s carefully rigged “evaluation” matrix.)
Each proposed center is identified in the main document (linked above) by a number, with red indicating major “regional” centers, orange indicating “town” centers, and yellow demarcating “neighborhood” centers. It can be seen that, outside the core area itself (a “regional” center), and the former Highland Mall area (now a major ACC site), most of the central inner city, following the traditional linear growth pattern along Guadalupe-Lamar and South Congress-Manchaca Rd., is comparatively very lightly targeted for “centers” development — there’s just one small “town” center at the Crestview MetroRail station, and a “neighborhood” center in the vicinity of St. Edward’s University (South Austin).
Despite the lofty rhetoric by COA officials promising to “bolster the city’s core” and so on, the really large-scale, influential pattern revealed in this “wish list” map is to emphasize outlying development, mainly associated with major freeways or highways (e.g., U.S. 183, I-35, U.S. 290), and peripheral development areas such as East Riverside and the “close-in suburb” of Mueller. There’s also a decidedly eastward skew to this plan, with major “centers” planned as far as SH 130 and even east of it.
The Imagine Austin plan in fact has a “suburbanization” emphasis uncomfortably reminiscent of the suburbanization policies of both federal and local governments following World War 2 which encouraged the sprawling, private-motor-vehicle-dependent form of development that is yielding such toxic fruit today. In fact, the COA itself, in a document discussing major demographic trends, warns of the threat of “Intensifying urban sprawl”:
The Austin region will continue to experience intense urban sprawl …. Although there is an enormous amount of residential development currently underway within the urban core and in downtown Austin, the thousands of new units being created there will be only a drop in the regional bucket of total residential units created. There simply are very few land availability constraints in the territory surrounding Austin.
And yet this is not to say that the positive effects of new urbanism and Smart Growth policies won’t be felt inside the city, it is rather to say that even with the success of the many enlightened urbanizing efforts currently afoot in Austin, urban sprawl and its footprint will have an enduring presence in central Texas.
This abandonment of the central city and its core neighborhoods is evident in the map segment below, zoomed-in from the larger map. For these core neighborhoods and commercial areas north of the core area — particularly the area circled in blue — there are no “centers” in COA’s vision — despite major activities and opportunities in areas such as Guadalupe-38th St.-Lamar (Central Market, medical facilities), the Triangle (multi-use development), and Koenig at Lamar (major opportunity of for redevelopment as a major center). Similar sites further north (e.g., North Lamar Transit Center area) and south (SoCo area, Manchaca/Stassney, etc.) are also ignored.
Central Austin’s core neighborhoods and commercial areas should take heed. Project Connect’s willingness to scrap the future of these crucial areas, and its plan for urban rail to bypass the central city and its established neighborhoods in preference for stimulating outlying development, should cause major concern to Austinites as a whole. Far from confined to Project Connect, it’s apparently merely the latest move in an insidious emerging policy by the COA administration itself.