Austin adopts vision for South Central Waterfront

Lady Bird Lake’s southern shore is one step closer to becoming the vibrant, walkable professional and recreational hub envisioned by city planners for more than 30 years after City Council adopted the South Central Waterfront vision framework plan June 16.

The South Central Waterfront—118 acres of public and private property across the lake from downtown Austin—is prime real estate that will inevitably be redeveloped, according to city planners. The goal of the vision framework plan is to help ensure that development is cohesive and maximizes the potential for the space.

“It’s an incredibly exciting project on an iconic piece of property,” Mayor Steve Adler said.

Without a comprehensive plan, the $1.2 billion of private development money a 2013 study projected could be invested into the south shore during the next 20 years might further fragment the area, said city planner Alan Holt, who is overseeing the planning initiative.

“If we do nothing, the development is coming anyway, and we’re going to get a bunch of one-off, parcel-by-parcel, piecemeal development,” he said. “In the end [without a plan], it’s very unlikely that is going to deliver great open spaces, connections, green streets; it’s very unlikely we get any affordable housing.”

The vision

The south shore of Lady Bird Lake, formerly situated in a flood plain and historically used for farming purposes, did not benefit from the same planning efforts the north shore had through the formative 1839 Waller Plan, Holt said.

“At almost every level, the built environment of the South Central Waterfront has been designed as an area that people drive through between the hours of 9 [a.m.] to 5 [p.m.], rather than a lively neighborhood with shops, homes and offices that feels safe and inviting 24 hours a day,” the vision plan reads. 

Previous waterfront studies, dating as far back as the 1985 Town Lake Corridor Study, called for comprehensive planning for the south shore. Nearly 30 years later, these efforts  led to the 2013 launch of the South Central Waterfront initiative—a comprehensive vision of what the South Central Waterfront could become and ways to get there. The vision includes proposals such as adding 20 acres of open space; building new trails, bridges and bike lanes; setting aside 20 percent of new housing as affordable; and encouraging mixed-use development with shops and restaurants at the street level.

Melissa Barry, vice president of planning for the Downtown Austin Alliance—a partnership of downtown property owners and stakeholders—said the plan has the potential to improve mobility and connectivity in the greater downtown area while cultivating an independent identity for the south shore.

“Having strong edges of downtown and neighborhoods around downtown strengthens downtown rather than competing with it,” Barry said. “The South Central Waterfront is really the southern gateway to downtown. And in its current form it doesn’t feel like a gateway, so I think this is a great opportunity to really support and build on downtown while creating a completely unique and separate district.”   

Critical partnerships

The success of the South Central Waterfront planning process depends on the collaboration of the owners of more than 30 private properties that make up the waterfront district.

City planners said they have held more than 20 community meetings since 2012 in addition to meetings with property owners and other stakeholders to gain support for the vision.

“This is a property that gives Austinites visual and physical access to Lady Bird Lake,” said Cory Walton, neighborhood association president for Bouldin Creek, one of the communities bordering the South Central Waterfront. “These are great goals, but they all come at the expense of the property owners being willing to give up [some developable area], so you have to figure out how to pay back the property owners and not blow up public visual access for physical access,” Walton added in an email.

The South Central Waterfront vision framework plan recommends establishing an advisory board  made up of stakeholders and industry experts to help assess the plan’s potential impact and provide additional feedback. Holt said the group would resemble the Waterfront Planning Advisory Board—a now disbanded citizens group appointed by council to advise on waterfront-area issues—but would be broader in scope to reflect the plan’s wide range of topics including affordable housing and transit.

Brooke Bailey, former chairwoman of the Waterfront Planning Advisory Board, said the south shore planning process would benefit from additional oversight.

“This process needs some checks and balances; that kind of got lost when we were taken away as a board,” she said. “Staff has been working so hard on this, but [when the board was active] they had to meet with us once a month. In doing that, they could see what may or may not be acceptable to residents.”

The property owners controlling the two largest portions of the South Central Waterfront area are the Crockett and Cox families—the latter of which owns part of the land envisioned as a new lakefront park with a bat-viewing amphitheater.

Part of the Crockett property is already occupied by Threadgill’s restaurant, Embassy Suites and other tenants. Mike Kennedy, managing director of real estate firm Avision Young, which was hired to handle redevelopment of the Crockett property, said his firm has supported and been involved with the South Central Waterfront planning process.

Kennedy said the framework plan represents the city’s investment in a rapidly changing area that local property owners recognize as being in need of redevelopment and a fresh vision.

“The city has grown tremendously, and the demand for additional housing, office and retail leads to the value in those properties really being in future development,” he said. “I think when this [plan] starts to become more of a reality [the waterfront] will be something we can all be very proud of and enjoy.”

The next step in the South Central Waterfront planning process is to establish funding tools and formalize ways city departments can help make the vision a reality, Holt said. Funding tools under consideration include tax credits, special taxing districts, public-private partnerships and capital improvement funding that will need to be considered and approved in separate actions, according to the plan. Holt said the vision plan will likely not influence the 2016-17 city budget. 

“Getting this adopted as a city plan puts some weight on city departments,” he said. “Everyone then has a city comprehensive plan to rally around and say, ‘How does my department and the work we do contribute to this overall vision?’”

The approved version of the South Central Waterfront vision framework plan is available online here.

Austin adopts vision for South Central Waterfront South Central Waterfront Districts[/caption]


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