Last week the City of Austin Planning Commission recommended the adoption of a set of regulations that, if approved, will determine the new face of East Riverside Drive.
The proposed regulations are designed to transform a concrete commercial zone between Interstate 35 and Texas 71 (Ben White Boulevard) into a more people-focused district with a mix of housing, businesses and transit, principal planner Erika Leak told the Austin American-Statesman. They outline rules developers would have to follow to comply with the city’s vision for the area, such as building heights and setbacks, trees and shade, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and public areas, transportation, parking and more. They’re also designed to encourage a community with of a mix of ages and incomes.
To guide development, the regulations use form-based codes, which look at the physical character and context of a district, such as the size of buildings in relationship to each other and to the public spaces around them. They also create more predictable results than zoning based on land use, according to the Planning and Development Review Department. In general, the city would like to see East Riverside flanked with wide, shaded sidewalks and buildings that top out at three to four stories. The new buildings would be close to the street, and parking would be moved behind them, creating better public spaces where people can interact. To reduce traffic, transit plazas, bike facilities and better walking paths would offer alternatives to cars.
The city laid out its vision for the area in 2010 when it adopted the East Riverside Corridor Master Plan, and early in 2013, City Council will vote on the regulations, known as the East Riverside Corridor Regulating Plan. But first the public will have a chance to review and comment on a draft of the regulations through the end of the year.
A major piece in the plan is a proposed urban rail line that would run between downtown and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport via Riverside Drive. A bond package to fund urban rail is expected to go before voters next year, according to the Statesman article.
Half a century ago, East Riverside Drive was a semirural road between downtown and the Austin Country Club, lined with homes, businesses and undeveloped green spaces. By the late 1970s, most of the area was within city limits and densely developed for students commuting to UT, with thousands of apartments, two grocery stores, two movie theaters, a University Co-op and acres of parking lots. But the city grew rapidly, and as housing costs skyrocketed outside the corridor, East Riverside saw an increase in residents who couldn’t afford to live elsewhere. In contrast to the high-tech companies that moved into the adjacent hills, many small businesses fled Riverside for the suburbs.
Largely as a result of development with no real plan for the future, East Riverside has become a congested six-lane freeway bordered by asphalt parking lots, half-empty strip malls and an oversupply of under-maintained, aging apartments.
Some southeast Austinites have been clamoring for change, but recent plans to replace older, low-rent apartment complexes with housing for affluent professionals has left others worried about a shortage of affordable housing or owner-occupied housing. In September the Daily Texan took a look at the area’s transformation and economic divide. And in a Nov. 2 article, the Statesman looks at unsafe conditions and code violations at Southeast Austin apartments built in the 1970s.
Now in Austin’s urban core, the area has become the focus of planning designed to reduce sprawl and traffic, and improve an aging infrastructure. Planning attempts included the East Riverside/Oltorf Combined Neighborhood Plan, adopted in 2006. For insights into how that process went, see the neighborhood stories and other documents from a 2007 planning conference. But if the neighborhood plan had potential to fix problems or bring improvements, it was hampered by the economic downturn — one of the worst in U.S. history — that soon followed.
With economic recovery will come redevelopment. The East Riverside Corridor already has downtown views, a community college and proximity to jobs, the airport, parkland and Lady Bird Lake. With a master plan, Austin has a chance to shape a community that also has a better quality of life.
Next step: The city’s goal is to make the area more livable and pedestrian-friendly, and a new transportation study is looking for ways to make the corridor safer and easier to get around on foot, on a bike, in a car, or via public transportation.
Contact: Erica Leak, City of Austin Planning and Development Review Department, 974-2856 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Update: City staff has requested that East Riverside Corridor discussion be postponed until the first City Council meeting in the New Year, possibly on Jan. 17.