Mayor-led effort to establish an innovation zone gains traction

Project expected to spur development on quiet side of downtown

Austin leaders want to leverage the city's "Silicon Hills" reputation to create an innovation zone in the northeast corner of downtown.

Construction begins this spring on a new medical school and teaching hospital near The University of Texas campus and state Capitol complex. The projects, spurred by the November 2012 passage of Proposition 1, could become catalysts to complementary development, said Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who estimates an innovation zone could generate millions in economic activity and create hundreds of jobs.

"The innovation zone is a fairly new idea that grew out of Prop 1 and also a general need to revitalize the eastern side of downtown," Leffingwell said. "We have to create the infrastructure that makes it easy and desirable for people to develop there."

A bevy of factors have so far discouraged development in that portion of downtown, said the mayor, who created an Innovation Zone Advisory Group to help realize his vision. The informal working group has met three times so far.

"We have to think outside the box—what can we do to change any limitations?" Leffingwell said.

Medical makeover

The UT Medical District Master Plan identifies space for public-private development west of Trinity Street and north of East 11th Street next to the future medical school. Gregory Fenves, UT provost and executive vice president, said the area would become attractive to companies from all disciplines.

"When I came here five years ago, I was a little surprised there was not better communication between the university and innovation community in Austin," Fenves said. "There was some minimal connections but nothing organized."

Fenves said the medical school's partnership with Seton Healthcare and the presence of Texas Medical Accelerator, a medical product developer, will help student startup companies gain more exposure.

"Startups are becoming the dominant way innovations enter the economy," he said. "Businesses and companies no longer invest in research—they gain it through the acquisition of startups."

The Innovation Zone Advisory Group has started cross-referencing the UT master plan with other long-term visions from area stakeholders. Their goal is to identify common goals and conflicting interests, said Charlie Betts, Downtown Austin Alliance executive director and advisory group member.

"This is the first time I can remember such a major effort to collaborate together," he said.

Betts, whose DAA office is located near the site of desired redevelopment, said the Waller Creek flood plain and state laws protecting Capital View Corridors have limited growth in that area.

"We've seen most of the development in the southwest corner of downtown," Betts said.

But long before the innovation zone concept came to the forefront, efforts were being made to improve the eastern side of downtown by revitalizing Waller Creek. A $147 million tunnel project will eliminate the creek's flood plain by 2015, while a long-term public-private partnership between the city and the Waller Creek Conservancy will help create parkland along the creek and developable space in the former flood plain, said Stephanie McDonald, the conservancy's executive director. The conservancy has worked since 2007 to create a master plan that McDonald said will make Waller Creek a prime Austin attraction.

"I think we take it for granted how dynamic and exciting Austin really is," she said. "We live in an amazing place, and we need to protect it and invest some more in projects that integrate public spaces."

Zoning changes and overlays may be necessary to realize the area's full potential, Leffingwell said, but development will still have to contend with the Capitol View Corridors, which establish height restrictions to maintain certain views of the state building.

"I don't think we'll make any effort to make any changes to those," he said. "It's something we'd rather work around if we could."

Some city and state facilities could potentially be relocated to make room for innovation-driven development. For example, Leffingwell said, the Austin Police Department headquarters could someday move from its Eighth Street location in the former flood plain rather than make necessary improvements to the facility.

Many state-owned properties—mostly filled with parking garages—also exist near the UT medical school. Leffingwell and Betts agreed the state may be open to redeveloping the properties.

"The state can ultimately profit from being adjacent to medical facilities," Betts said.

From Boston to Austin

Many working group members joined Leffingwell last fall on an Austin Chamber of Commerce–led trip to Boston to see Kendall Square and other areas of concentrated innovation. Jeremy Martin, Austin Chamber of Commerce senior vice president of government relations and regional infrastructure, said the group benefited from seeing a combination of projects made possible by strong public sector leadership and private sector investment.

"One of the main messages from Boston—and from Silicon Valley the year before—density, meaning proximity, is what allows creativity to happen," Martin said. "By clustering those resources, it allows for those chance encounters."

There must not be a hard boundary where the innovation district begins and ends, said Nathaniel Welch, senior manager for Cambridge, Mass.–based CFAR Consulting. An environment conducive to innovation will expand organically, he said.

"The younger generations thinking of these ideas are the ones that can have an impact on the success of an innovation district, so there needs to be a pathway for those ideas to flow," Welch said.

Welch and William Ghormley, senior vice president of business development for Xconomy Inc., visited Austin last fall to discuss potential overlap between the Boston innovation districts and Leffingwell's initiative. Many of the successes in Boston came in waves, Ghormley said, and Austin would benefit from riding the momentum already started by the medical school project.

"The medical school will be a huge driver that will create ripples—like a huge rock being dropped in a pond," Ghormley said. "It starts to make the silos spin together and connect, and you find out who the new leaders of the next generation will be."

By Joe Lanane
Joe Lanane’s career is rooted in community journalism, having worked for a variety of Midwest-area publications before landing south of the Mason-Dixon line in 2011 as the Stillwater News-Press news editor. He arrived at Community Impact Newspaper in 2012, gaining experience as editor of the company’s second-oldest publication in Leander/Cedar Park. He eventually became Central Austin editor, covering City Hall and the urban core of the city. Lanane leveraged that experience to become Austin managing editor in 2016. He managed eight Central Texas editions from Georgetown to San Marcos. Working from company headquarters, Lanane also became heavily involved in enacting corporate-wide editorial improvements. In 2017, Lanane was promoted to executive editor, overseeing editorial operations throughout the company. The Illinois native received his bachelor’s degree from Western Illinois University and his journalism master’s degree from Ball State University.


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