Last year, TOWERS profiled the ongoing growth of Chestnut Plaza and the Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) at MLK Jr. Boulevard and Alexander Avenue, located in East Austin at the MLK Jr. Station of Capital Metro’s Red Line. Nearly 10 years after the rail station first opened, the area around it still has plenty of empty space waiting for growth, but some of those gaps should be filled in the near future:
Since least year’s article, two new developments — an expansion of the Platform apartments, and the Rail at MLK apartments — have broken ground here, and appear to be progressing quickly. Fun fact: the Platform is now the tallest structure between the University of Texas and Mueller.
A mixed-use office and townhome project, Cityline at MLK Station, has also started turning dirt here, with another site plan recently filed for MLK Highline, an apartment building bringing the district an additional 200 units and 9,000 square feet of retail at the northwestern corner of MLK Jr. Boulevard and Alexander Avenue.
With these projects, we can begin to see the potential of the MLK TOD as it approaches full buildout — and more importantly, we can now begin to ask ourselves whether it actually achieves the goal of Transit-Oriented Development as articulated in the original vision of the MLK TOD plan, the city’s 2006 TOD ordinance, and the original principles that led to the idea of TOD in the first place.
Satellite views of the MLK Jr. Station area from 2002 and 2017, with the extent of the site’s new roads and development visible. Images: Google Earth / USGS
Very simply put, Transit-Oriented Development is the construction of dense mixed-use buildings around train stations or high-quality bus lines. The idea is to create new urban nodes that facilitate a car-free lifestyle, in opposition to typical suburban sprawl. Here’s how the MLK regulating plan puts it:
TOD is the functional integration of land use and transit. It is compact, walkable, mixed-use development connected to high quality public transportation, which balances the need for sufficient density to support convenient transit service with the scale of the adjacent community. Typical features include improved pedestrian and street connectivity, public amenities such as pocket parks and plazas, civic art, landscaping, benches, streetlights, etc., and a concentration of residences and jobs in proximity to transit stations and commercial businesses.
— MLK TOD Area Regulating Plan, City of Austin
The idea was pioneered by California architect Peter Calthorpe in his 1993 book The Next American Metropolis. Although the idea of mixed-use developments built with transit access in mind seems commonplace now, apparently it was quite revolutionary in 1993 — which turned out to be a pivotal year with the founding of the Congress for New Urbanism, of which Calthorpe is a part, along with the publication of anti-sprawl screed The Geography of Nowhere. We’ll be referencing Calthorpe’s original vision for TOD design as it relates to Chestnut Plaza throughout this article.
In Central Texas, TOD first appeared in the forward-thinking Envision Central Texas (ECT) regional planning effort, established in the early 2000s to create a land-use plan that could better accommodate the next 1.5 million Central Texans in a sustainable manner — Calthorpe, by the way, worked as a consultant on the project. An idea that emerged from ECT was the utilization of Capital Metro’s existing freight rail line, which ran from Austin to Leander, to also carry commuter rail passengers. Doing so would connect several former industrial sites that could become station sites with transit-oriented development around them.
Although Envision Central Texas’ opposition to sprawl and highways had trouble gaining traction, the idea of the Red Line, connecting a string of new dense development, persisted. In 2000, two years before Envision Central Texas, a proposal for an Austin-wide light rail system had failed, barely, at the ballot box. The city and Capital Metro’s next effort for rail was the Red Line, first proposed in 2004. Part of the pitch was the potential for TOD:
Some business people say that Capital Metro is pushing the idea that the dense and potentially lucrative mix of lofts, restaurants, dry-cleaners, day-care centers, and shops that rail stations might spawn is a primary justification.
Capital Metro even hired Calthorpe in the run-up to the Red Line vote, which passed in 2004. The city then set about creating TOD plans for the identified station areas, with the MLK Jr. station built around a former industrial site where the Featherlite company once stored prefabricated concrete — an undeveloped piece of land in the middle city, perfect for dense infill.
City Council passed an ordinance in 2006 creating the TOD program; a 2008 plan crafted a vision for the MLK Jr. Station area, and a 2009 plan enacted a regulatory framework — essentially a miniature land development code, only for the area around the station. It’s laid out with different zones that regulate intensity and building height, but also includes provisions for sidewalks, street trees, parking requirements, and other building design features for construction within the TOD.
Notably, the plan allows builders to include only 60 percent of the city’s typical base parking requirement — after all, if a TOD is working as intended, fewer residents and workers will be using private cars instead of transit. The plan dictates much wider sidewalks than elsewhere in the city, at five to seven feet of concrete with another five to eight feet of plantings in the form of trees and other landscaping (developers are also required to bury utilities to keep them from obstructing these sidewalks). The goal of such requirements? Reducing the importance of cars within the development, while creating the most attractive possible pedestrian environment.
A final provision of each TOD regulating plan was a density bonus for affordable housing, rooted in a 2006 city council resolution that wanted each TOD to contain 25 percent affordable units. Some jurisdictions, including San Francisco, require developers to provide the desired percentage of affordable units — this requirement, called inclusionary zoning, is essentially illegal in Texas.
Austin instead uses density bonuses as a method of incentivizing the housing it cannot require. Unfortunately, the density bonus for the MLK TOD is both convoluted and weak: it waives limits on a building’s floor-to-area ratio (FAR) and its number of units per acre, on the condition that the developer provides 25 percent affordable units. Though many density bonus programs enable additional height, this one still caps development at 60 feet tall. The base FAR limit is 2:1 and the base density is 45 units per acre. Notably, it is quite difficult to exceed these limits in a development that’s limited to 60 feet.
The bonus also waives single-family compatibility requirements, except within 100 feet of the boundaries of the TOD. Again, this bonus is not particularly helpful — due to the narrow nature of the TOD area, almost every lot is within 100 feet of a single-family home, and so would be affected by compatibility standards no matter what. Lots that aren’t, such as the central building of the Platform apartments, are far enough removed from single-family homes that those requirements would have no effect regardless of the bonus.
The regulatory plan was finished in 2009, right in the midst of the Time of Shedding and Cold Rocks, and a full year before the Red Line actually opened. For quite a while, only two developments actually occupied the area: Chestnut Commons, a small mix of garden apartments and cottage homes at the south end of the TOD, was actually completed before the plan was adopted; while M Station, an affordable apartment complex, opened in 2010.
Redeemer Presbyterian and a school called Acton Academy came along in 2013, and the Elan East apartments opened at the far north of the TOD in 2014. But the kind of dense housing with ground-floor retail immediately adjacent to a transit station, evoked by Calthorpe and envisioned by the regulating plan, would not truly emerge until 2016, when the first piece of the Platform apartments opened.
Construction currently underway within Chestnut Plaza, seen here in a street view dating back to March 2019.
So, as the district finally comes into its own, how many of its original goals has it realized? Does it meet the ambitious goals imagined over the last 25 years of transit-oriented planning theory? To find out, we’ve got to take a look at three dimensions – urban form, affordability, and transportation.
Urban form consists of the height and design of the TOD’s buildings; the streetscape, the density, and the development’s mix of uses. By these metrics, the urban form at Chestnut Plaza is actually quite successful. Though still unfinished, the collection of mid-rise buildings both built and expected here almost perfectly matches the idea of a neighborhood TOD laid out by Calthorpe and later planning efforts.
If all projects currently proposed are completed as designed, there will be ±1,450 residential units in the quarter mile around MLK Jr. Station, right in line with Calthorpe’s original TOD guidelines of 10-25 units per acre. (A circle with a radius of a quarter mile is almost exactly 125 acres.)
Chestnut Plaza’s 139,000 square feet of office space could support around 900 jobs, but retail’s had some trouble taking foot in the MLK TOD so far — currently, the only active retail space is located along the ground floor of the Platform apartments, and consists of a high-end florist, a high-end salon, and a high-end coffee shop. One potential cause for this weakness is the Mueller neighborhood, less than 2 miles away and likely sucking up a lot of retail demand from all over this region of East Austin.
Parks are an area where the TOD mostly shines, at least in the southern end. Givens Park, on the opposite side of the tracks from the TOD, is a large park with a little league field and the Downs-Mabson field, which historically served as Austin’s negro league stadium and where Huston-Tillotson still plays today. The St. David’s Foundation Community Garden adds another chunk of green space, and the extension of the Boggy Creek Greenbelt trail connects these spaces to the station itself as well as to parks further south along Boggy Creek, such as the Rosewood Neighborhood Park. Still, it’d be nice if some green space found its way into the northern half of the TOD area once more development gets rolling.
The streetscape, at least where development has already taken place, is frankly wonderful. On the south side of MLK Jr. Boulevard fronting the Platform apartments, a wide canopy of two live oak trees shades an 8-foot sidewalk with benches. Across the street, a shadeless 5-foot sidewalk is interrupted by utility poles and has no buffer from the cars speeding down the boulevard. The difference couldn’t be more obvious — the street views embedded above and below this paragraph are from the exact same perspective, just with the camera turned around.
Each new development fixes the sidewalks in front of it, gradually transforming the area. Unfortunately, the requirement for wide sidewalks, landscaping, and buried utilities is a double edged sword — these wonderful streetscapes are expensive, and the TOD regulating plan puts the cost entirely on the developer. Those kinds of requirements discourage development to begin with and make it more expensive in the long run.
On the other hand, affordability appears to be one of the TOD’s major failings. At the moment, 140 of the 150 apartments at M Station are affordable, and constitute 18% of the area’s overall unit count — but none of the other existing developments at Chestnut Plaza participated in affordable housing programs, and it appears none of the forthcoming development here will choose to do so either. The TOD’s development bonus, which does not actually boost entitlements or height allowances, is likely too anemic to induce developers to use it — plus, the high cost of land and extra requirements for site standards in this area makes development here more costly than it might be in the suburbs.
It’s worth noting that since all the development at Chestnut Plaza transformed a previously-vacant industrial site, literally no one was displaced by the MLK TOD — still, by adding high-end housing with high rents and high-income tenants, opponents could still argue the development exacerbates East Austin’s gentrification crisis. However, by providing housing for high-income tenants in East Austin, the MLK TOD also relieves the pressure those people might otherwise exert on the area’s housing market. Either way, when the current expected projects are complete, only 150 of the ±1,450 units in the TOD will be affordable, far short of the original 25 percent goal.
Peter Calthorpe defined “high-quality” regional transit as providing “trunk line” or express route capabilities, including frequency of service (or “headway”) of no more than 15 minutes between vehicles, along with dedicated right-of-way for its vehicles — meaning rail for trains or dedicated lanes for buses.
The Red Line does not meet this definition. As noted earlier, the route was chosen to connect undeveloped areas, not to be the main regional line. It is also unlikely that Calthorpe envisioned a commuter rail line that stopped running at 6:30 p.m. — not to mention that until 2018, the bus service at MLK Jr. Station only had a frequency of 32 minutes at peak times. These offerings are simply not enough to convince people to ditch their cars or to catalyze additional developments.
Transit is improving, however — Capital Metro’s Route #18 bus service now runs 15-minute headways for most of the day, and the Red Line is currently undergoing improvements that will allow it to operate faster, more frequently, and with longer hours. The bus along Manor Road, Route #20, may be upgraded to a MetroRapid line. An extended trail along the Boggy Creek Greenbelt opened this year, which connects the MLK Jr. train station to a continuous trail and bike line stretching all the way to Lady Bird Lake.
But even after the frequency boost to the #18 bus, ridership at the stops next to the Platform apartments has not substantially increased — the stops went from 22 combined boardings to 40 combined boardings from 2017 to 2018, but that number may be the result of boardings cannibalized from Capital Metro’s shuttle bus service, which saw a decline in boardings during the same period. Ridership for the Red Line is almost certainly down, especially while the downtown station is closed and a new station is under construction.
The streetscapes at Chestnut Plaza play a role here, because a transit-oriented development requires good pedestrian connectivity to function. Every transit trip starts and ends as a pedestrian trip, and an area with substandard or missing sidewalks creates a huge barrier to overall transit use. To this day, residents at the Elan East apartments, which contains about a third of the TOD’s overall units, do not enjoy a continuous sidewalk to the train station. Until the Boggy Creek Greenbelt trail extension opened, there was also not an easy way for neighbors south of MLK Jr. Boulevard and east of the creek to walk to the station.
On the plus side, it appears every new development here is taking advantage of the 40 percent reduction in base parking requirements — and apartments with fewer parking units will likely attract tenants with fewer cars. It’s possible that within a few years, once all the blank spaces here are filled in, the sidewalk network is connected, and the transit lines have been substantially upgraded, we could finally achieve a vision of a mixed-use neighborhood node where residents and workers can actually get around without cars. But this vision’s realization will have taken much longer than we hoped, and it will be far less affordable than originally planned.
It’s often bemoaned in Austin that you can’t build dense car-free or car-lite neighborhoods until there’s quality transit to service it, but you can’t run that quality transit until there’s sufficient density to use it. The Transit-Oriented Development approach was an attempt to get around this chicken-or-the-egg problem, by building the transit and allowing the market to build the neighborhood around it — but judging by what we’ve taken a look at above, the transit didn’t sufficiently induce development to overcome the tepid real estate market after the 2008 recession. By relying on developers to provide sidewalks, the TOD may have impeded both transit and development — after all, the sidewalks necessary to reach transit should be considered as essential as transit itself. The plan’s anemic density bonus approach also pretty obviously harmed the district’s overall affordability, by failing to sufficiently incentivize development accessible to lower-income people.
As Austin contemplates its next phase of transit growth with Project Connect, TOD planning might soon arrive on the city’s agenda once again — and fortunately, the routes Capital Metro is contemplating, such as the Orange Line and the Blue Line, are the sort of trunk lines Calthorpe described as ideal for enabling effective TOD. But that means the city must create plans that encourage, rather than impede, the necessary conditions for growth.
That starts with well-connected sidewalk networks for transit access, but we also need to give these new districts density bonus programs with some teeth if we’re going to encourage any private developer to bother building the affordable housing we want. The aforementioned goal of 25 percent affordable units in a TOD may not seem insurmountable — if anything, it sounds a little low — but until we pull that off, it’s hard to say Austin has fully achieved the original vision of Transit-Oriented Development. Still, you might consider the upsides and downsides of Chestnut Plaza as points on a map leading to better projects in the future — and even with its shortcomings, this emerging neighborhood really is getting better all the time.