Burnet Corridor Plan Descoped. Now What?

posted Mar 27, 2016, 11:18 AM by Steven Zettner   [ updated Mar 27, 2016, 2:36 PM ]

This was not a happy week for those of us trying to shape a community-friendly Burnet.  City staff announced a decision to defer the Burnet Corridor Plan.

The exact details remain fluid.  The intent of the decision is to allow staff to stay focused on the CodeNext project to reinvent the City's zoning laws. City Council wants faster movement on this, and planning staff is undermanned.

At an Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC) Sector 2 meeting on Saturday, staff argued that a lot of work has already been done on Burnet, in particular an Austin Transportation Department (ATD) 2011 transportation study.  Staff proposes to leverage that work and implement high-impact, low-cost pedestrian improvements along Burnet.  The "Paint and Polka Dots" project at E. 6th St and Waller is an example, described in this Citylab article.


Why We Need Long-Term Land Use Planning More Than We Need Short-Term Pedestrian Improvements

I hope most people will know that I champion pedestrian improvements in the Burnet Rd right-of-way.  But we shouldn't support this proposal until we get assurances that far more existential challenges will be addressed. Here's why.

1)  Right-of-way improvements are important, but the City owns the right of way and we can get those improvements over time.  That’s not the case with two cumulative long-term threats to the Burnet community that come with redevelopment - 1) an unbalanced housing mix that shapes a permanent bias against families in the urban core (see earlier blog), 2) insufficient public space in the right place (see earlier blog).  These two issues trump other, more obvious things because they can't be fixed later. We've got to address them as development takes place.  For that, (as for all the other important things like transportation, affordability for residents and small businesses, capital project planning, and so on), we need an actual land use plan.

2) The 2011 Burnet transportation study that staff proposes to rely on only looked at the public right of way, not zoning of adjacent properties.  It was a 3-month scramble (just two public meetings) to ram through some right-of-way improvements in time for the 2012 bond package. It didn't look at Anderson Ln, or Burnet south of 2222, at all.  Despite repeated requests documented here, the lead consultant would not address our concerns about the study's corridor vision.

3) A crucial function of local area plans is to allow local stakeholders to help influence a balance of local vs. citywide priorities.  If planning staff proceed with a CodeNext citywide mapping of new zoning, Burnet's future land use, and all the resulting impacts, will have been determined by fiat.

4) Staff's earlier direction to use Burnet to deep-dive on emerging CodeNext rules still makes sense.  One of the biggest potential risks to CodeNext is insufficient testing of CodeNext rules and concepts in a real-life context and with live consumers. To my knowledge there hasn’t been a single focus group.  Hands-on interviews with demographically representative sets of Burnet residents could help us understand if we are building housing that different kinds of households will actually pay for.  Robust scenario modelling of zoning impacts can tell us if we will get a result that is economically viable, addresses transportation concerns, reinforces community identity, and delivers a balanced housing mix that can sustain truly intergenerational communities.  Nobody wants to be a CodeNext guinea pig, but the alternative is much worse.

5) Staff is neglecting a City Council resolution that lays out in detail the expectations for the process. http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/document.cfm?id=212079


Next Steps

City planning staff at the ANC meeting Saturday expressed sympathy for our concerns.  There seems to be willingness to look for compromises as long as they don't get in the way of the aggressive CodeNext timeline.  Council Member Leslie Pool at the end of the meeting accurately summarized our positions and promised to pursue them in follow-on talks with senior planners. 

I continue to believe that we on Burnet can have a valuable and constructive influence on CodeNext.  I'd like to see our community help staff to help us.