After months of planning and debate, the East Riverside Corridor has a new regulating plan that aims to make the area more pedestrian friendly and create more density. The plan reached final approval from the Austin City Council at the May 9 council meeting.
The master planning process for a 3.5-mile stretch of East Riverside Drive between Hwy. 71 and I-35 began in 2007, and the regulating plan creates four hubs where people could live, work and spend their free time. The plan allows for high-density, mixed-use developments and includes the possibility of rail service to the area in the future.
The continued point of contention about the plan centered on businesses with drive-thrus. Councilwoman Kathie Tovo presented an amendment to the plan that will change existing drive-thru facilities to nonconforming use seven years after the plan is put into place. Nonconforming use means there are limitations as to how much a facility can expand or remodel before being subject to the new regulating plan.
"This was a goal of the plan, to create pedestrian-friendly corridors, and I think this supports that mission and supports the work that the stakeholders brought to that process," Tovo said.
Mayor Lee Leffingwell opposed the amendment over concerns of adding additional burdens to those businesses in the area and the possibility of restricting business growth in the corridor.
"I just have a very difficult time imagining in my mind someone strolling down the sidewalk and going into the bank or going into a restaurant and then stopping by the cleaners and strolling back home," Leffingwell said. "People who live in that area are going to want to patronize businesses, whether it be food, whether it be dry cleaning, whether it be pharmacies or banks, that have those facilities available to them. So I think, basically, the whole thing is a business development killer."
Councilman Chris Riley made another amendment that instead of making all drive-thrus nonconforming, they are allowed to be considered conforming with the plan if they comply with the corridor's design plans.
"That would move us in the direction of a more pedestrian-oriented environment, even while respecting the concerns about drive-thrus," Riley said. "My hope is that would serve the spirit of the amendment while still recognizing that some business owners have concerns about [nonconforming]."
Councilman Bill Spelman also weighed in on the plan, proposing a change to the way the plan deals with service stations, such as gas stations. His amendment made existing service stations in certain zoning categories a permitted use, but any new services station would be prohibited in the East Riverside Corridor.
"Although we are looking for a new-urbanist, highly walkable environment, it is true that it's going to be a few years before we're in position to have this be as dense and walkable as we like," Spelman said. "In the meantime, most of those lanes of traffic on Riverside will not be used by bus rapid transit [or] by express bus. It will be a minimum of 10 years, I suspect, before we get any kind of train, light rail, urban rail, commuter rail or gondola on East Riverside. As a result of that, people are going to [be] driving and they're going to need to put gas in their car."