Proposal would create pedestrian- friendly hubs, improve infrastructure

A longstanding plan to transform East Riverside Drive is gaining momentum.

Austin City Council is considering a regulating plan for the 3.5 mile–long corridor between Hwy. 71 and I-35, which resident Timothy Marcus described as a “strip mall wasteland.”

“The corridor was basically designed for cars,” said Erica Leak, project manager with the City of Austin’s Planning and Development Review Department. “Now there are limited [pedestrian-friendly] facilities, but it’s still a pretty hostile environment for pedestrians. There are huge parking lots, and I’m not sure there are any trees along any of this corridor, so in the summer, it’s really quite a hot place to be.”

The East Riverside Corridor is about as big as downtown and serves as a gateway to Austin, Leak said.

The proposed plan looks to increase the number of transportation and housing options, create more neighborhood open spaces, and improve the streets and infrastructure. To make the vision a reality, city staff are proposing a regulating plan that would serve as a zoning and design tool.

The regulating plan covers design and land use, and proposes development bonuses to promote affordable housing, business growth and concentrated development. The plan would only impact future redevelopment or development, and there is flexibility for existing businesses to stay and make needed updates without adhering to the plan, Leak said.

A long-term project

The East Riverside Corridor master planning process began in 2007. In 2010, City Council adopted a master plan focused on increasing pedestrian safety and comfort. The proposed regulating plan follows goals laid out in the master plan, including a focus on creating a more complete community for the area and a more pedestrian-friendly environment.

The regulating plan proposes the creation of four densely populated hubs along the corridor where people could live, work and spend leisure time.

“This [concentrated development] concept is really important because research shows that retail and commercial spaces do better when they are concentrated rather than located along a long, linear pathway,” Leak said.

Potential rail service

Increasing the density could help encourage the expansion of a rail line through the corridor, Leak said. The City of Austin has stated plans for the second phase of a rail line extension between downtown and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to go through the corridor.

However, any potential future rail service would require a referendum.

Several East Riverside–area residents said they worried about East Riverside becoming more dense and then not having the needed transportation to serve the density.

“If urban rail fails, this [regulating plan] must be re-examined and restored to the levels that the corridor and the infrastructure can support,” East Riverside–area resident Gayle Goff said.

However, fellow resident Larry Sunderland said urban density is an important aspect in getting the workforce housing and better transportation options.

“I am personally not afraid of density,” he said.

A proposed ban on drive-thrus

During a November council meeting, City Council debated the regulating plan’s proposal to ban future businesses with drive-thrus from opening within the corridor.

Banning drive-thrus is part of the vision of making the corridor more pedestrian-friendly, Leak said. Councilwoman Kathie Tovo said banning drive-thrus would make the corridor more environmentally friendly.

But Mayor Lee Leffingwell said forbidding a certain type of business from opening in the corridor would be counterproductive.

“It’s really an economic development killer to put this kind of restriction in this corridor,” he said.

City Council is scheduled to consider adopting the regulating plan and any potential amendments, including allowing drive-thrus, on Jan. 17, Leak said.


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