New subdivisions, apartment complexes emerge

Every time a new development promotes its proximity to Austin-area rail transportation, Linda Watson said there is a feeling of validation at Capital Metro.

The public transportation agency's president and CEO said those marketing efforts show how attractive MetroRail has become since going live in March 2010.

"People see the value in the service we provide," she said. "They get it."

The commuter train's popularity has helped spark the first residential developments surrounding the Lakeline and Leander Park & Ride stations, Capital Metro's two northernmost rail stops on the Red Line, which ends in downtown Austin.

The first residents this month move into Northwoods at Avery Ranch, a new residential subdivision across Lakeline Boulevard from the Lakeline station, as well as at Indigo Apartments. Similarly in Leander, a new subdivision and apartment complex have been granted preliminary approvals, marking the first projects to gain traction within the city's transit-oriented development, or TOD, district.

"Once you start seeing projects like that on the ground, it's a snowball effect," Watson said. "Over time, denser development will occur."

Leander TOD breaks ground

Longtime Leander Councilman David Siebold has watched the city's TOD district sit idle since 2005, when the city first utilized the SmartCode—an award-winning zoning system geared toward creating transit-oriented development.

Siebold, a recent appointee to Capital Metro's board of directors, said financing has proven to be the biggest obstacle to getting a project off the ground in an area marked for denser, pedestrian-friendly development. Banks perceive multiuse projects in particular as carrying the largest risk, he said.

But those exact projects are what Leander needs to develop its TOD district, Siebold said. He estimates that pedestrians will walk a quarter mile to a half mile from the train stop, making denser, vertical development necessary to ensure the best use of the land surrounding the station.

"There's still a fear, even though I think demand is there, whether the urbanization of suburbs can work," Siebold said. "I think if we can do it right, it'll work."

Transit Village Investments, which owns the majority of land immediately surrounding the Leander Park & Ride station, is developing the first two projects within the TOD district. The initial endeavor includes a hybrid approach to building small-lot, single family homes, Leander Urban Design Officer Pix Howell said.

The 21.8-acre neighborhood will be situated between FM 2243 and Hero Way and on each side of the new Mel Mathis Avenue. Lots will be 40 feet wide with single-wide, tandem garages to accommodate two vehicles. Also, per council recommendation, the neighborhood streets will include "bump-ins" to allow for designated street parking.

In addition, the same development group is creating medium-density apartments that will be known as The Village at Leander Station. The 9.74-acre project will be located on the northeast corner of Hero Way and Mel Mathis Avenue and include approximately 225 multifamily units. A second phase of construction, which will be delayed until market demand warrants action, would add a mixed-use retail project closer to the intersection.

While the two projects are not as dense as preferred within the TOD district, Howell said the city showed flexibility, which should help attract more developers.

"Even though it may not be the ideal project or perfect vision of what we want, it's so close we'd rather accommodate it than deny it," he said. "To a certain degree, those landowners really aren't developers, but they realized that these projects were going to be important to sell the rest of their land, so they stepped out and kind of started the snowball."

The effort may prove worthwhile, with Howell reporting more phone inquiries in the past three months on TOD district property than the previous five years. That is encouraging, he said, because up to 80 percent of the land surrounding the train station is for sale by land brokers who have waited patiently.

All the while, Austin Community College board members continue working toward a future bond election that may include money set aside to build a new campus in Leander within the TOD district. Such a project would help spark development throughout the rest of the TOD, said Siebold, who predicts the district will reach its full form in 10–20 years.

"Be patient," he said. "We're at least starting to get some activity."

Lakeline developments debut

Construction began last fall on the first two residential projects near the Lakeline Park & Ride Station, and the fruit of that labor is beginning to show.

Northwoods at Avery Ranch, a 520-home subdivision off Lakeline Boulevard, had builders so excited that Trio Development was able to be selective, President Gary Newman said. He has tasked five homebuilders to collectively create the neighborhood, establishing the state's first National Green Building Standard four-star homes for meeting the strictest environmentally friendly building standards in the nation.

"The entire positioning of Northwoods is green," Newman said. "All of that, in my opinion, attracts someone who is interested in public transportation."

In addition, more than half of the 8,000 large trees throughout the previously uncharted property were saved, he said, in order to meet stricter-than-usual Austin ordinances. Many properties were "jigsawed" around trees to help maintain the area's natural amenities, Newman said.

The project was originally slated to be twice as dense, but the large number of trees and market forces proved too much to fight against, he said.

"A little more traditional product fits that area better because it is more suburban than urban," Newman said.

Immediately west is Indigo Apartments, a 325-unit apartment complex that covers 18.22 acres. Residents have already been seen walking each morning to the Lakeline Park & Ride station.

But unlike other Austin-based train stations, the Lakeline stop is still in the first phase of transit-oriented development, said Christine Fruendl, an Austin senior planner who oversees the city's TOD districts. Once the area warrants a more dense development model, the city will begin a master-planning process on how best to create a unified area surrounding the train station, she said.

"The farther north, the harder it is for people to see or reimagine some of these areas as something walkable, dense and mixed-use because they're not right now, so that's a challenge," Fruendl said. "That's when education comes in when dealing with developers. It's just going to take time."

Mark Baker of SEC Planning helped develop Northwoods at Avery Ranch with Newman. He said the variety of residential options near the Lakeline station make it unique from the other stops along the MetroRail Red Line. And as demand increases, so too will the amount of urban projects surrounding the train stations, he said.

"If traffic continues to get as bad as it is around this town, you'll see more and more density [near] the rail station, which will be more attractive even though it may be struggling today," he said.