Updated: May 24, 2018*
City of Austin Principal Planner Alan Holt recently gave the Design Commission an update on the South Central Waterfront Vision Framework Plan, with an eye toward how to implement the document.
This is the document that City Council approved the summer of 2016, but Holt made clear that its success requires a governing board that does not yet exist.
City Council left it up to city planners and local stakeholders to work out a Regulating Plan. This amounts to set of conditions and incentives that the authors hope will provide the financing and other incentives necessary to get developers within the 118-acre zone to buy into the master plan.
The Design Commission recommended the Regulating Plan as presented at its April 23 session, and added one caveat–that future development in the South Central Waterfront come under their review authority.
Holt said the Regulating Plan is undergoing constant revision, but a final draft is expected to be presented to City Council in June for adoption. Before the council takes that vote, the Planning and Zoning Department will have something a little more concrete to show the public.
The city of Austin, working in conjunction with Austin Parks Foundation, community partners and Yeti, Holt said they are moving forward with the installation of a 12-month demo of Barton Springs Plaza. One of the public spaces envisioned in the 2016 plan is a plaza at the intersection of Barton Springs Road and Congress Avenue and the planning department wants a temporary mock-up that will actually occupy the space of a future plaza.
“It’s taken longer than I’d hoped,” Holt said of the permit process, “but we’ve not been able to permit that plaza. Over the next month or so, this installation is going to be completed and we’ll be off and running with this one-year experiment.”
The city departments involved include Public Works, Austin Transportation, and Planning & Zoning|Urban Design, Holt added.
CMG Landscape Architecture conducted a series of charrettes that led to concept designs that include Barton Springs Plaza renderings that will be the basis for a permanent design. The plaza envisioned would be a shady green oasis with rain gardens. The cost for a permanent plaza is almost $1 million and the funds have yet to be raised, Holt added.
“In the future, when the city has the funds to build … the city will likely engage design consultants to do the design development and construction documents, etc.,” Holt told Towers.
The hope behind this demo of a plaza is that it will give the 34 property owners in the district a daily reminder of the direction the city wants to steer redevelopment. This isn’t seen as just another urban transformation. The vision is to raise the standard for what is possible in high-density, sustainable urban improvement.
The goal of the Regulating Plan is to make sure there are practical and flexible tools in place to realize the goals of the master plan, no small request. The master plan calls for a $99 million investment in the public realm in order to expand the open spaces and rights of way needed to ensure the connectivity and quality of life at street level that will make the South Central Waterfront district the city’s model of an urban high-density community.
The Public Realm:
- Open Space $20.8 million
- Existing Streets $33.4 million
- New Streets $44.8 million
- Total Cost $99 million
The Regulating Plan, as currently drafted, does not force property owners in the district to provide community benefits.
“If you’re happy with the South Central Waterfront District as it is today, you’re good to go,” Holt said.
However, unlike requirements in downtown Austin’s Central Business District where most or all of the cost of public amenities in a development are put on the private developer, there are expected to be incentives in the way of 60 percent funding through public contributions, Holt said.
A key tool to accomplish this is the creation of a tax increment financing board. As development occurs, a portion of future local taxes within the district will go into a fund to provide matching dollars.
Private landowner engagement in public improvement projects is not a novel concept to stakeholders in the district, and adjacent neighborhoods like Bouldin Creek. Holt noted that six landowners, including the Embassy Suites by Hilton Austin and the Cox family, owner of the American-Statesman campus, have been a part of the Austin Downtown Public Improvement District (Downtown Austin Alliance) for a decade.
Earlier this year, the Cox family assembled its development team to take on the 19-acre Statesman tract. Endeavor Real Estate Group, their development partners, is working with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill urban planners, and CMG.
The American-Statesman redevelopment project is the most watched because it is the largest tract under one owner, and the destiny of a waterfront park expansion is in their hands.
In addition to improvements in the public realm, the plan requires 20 percent of the new housing be affordable units. Holt said the city doesn’t expect private developers to accomplish that goal alone.
The city plans to partner with a non-profit to redevelop land at One Texas Center, 505 Barton Springs Road.
“That will contribute 8 percent of the total, so we need to get another 12 or 13 percent of affordable housing out of the private sector,” Holt said.
Commissioner Samuel Franco said the one thing that was on everyone’s mind. He noted that several property owners were already moving forward and the Regulating Plan was not yet an official document, nor did it have teeth.
Holt acknowledged that even once adopted, the Regulating Plan was not functional.
“You have the financial tools off to the side. The master plan assumes there are city dollars through a TIF (tax increment financing) to complement the private development, but we don’t have the TIF,” Holt said. “This is kind of like asking you to buy the wheels and the transmission, but we can’t drive anywhere, yet.
“In the best of all possible worlds, you might have actually started with the TIF … but we’re kind of in the middle building out.”
Commissioner Evan Taniguchi found much promise in the Regulating Plan and said if it’s adopted the city could learn a lot about density. He compared the South Central Waterfront to the Mission Bay district in San Francisco as it was 20 years ago. He was able to observe the planning stages for its redevelopment.
“I thought it went amazingly fast. Before I knew it, I was out there and I saw the thing built. I’m hoping something like that can happen here, just to show people what it’s like to live in a dense urban core that really works well,” Taniguchi said.
*This article was updated to more accurately reflect the role played by city departments in the plans for Barton Springs Plaza, and to clarify the role of CMG Landscape Architecture in the plaza’s design.