Sunday’s “Burnet Rd Better Block” Event and Its Implications

posted Sep 7, 2016, 6:21 PM by Steven Zettner   [ updated Sep 7, 2016, 6:22 PM ]

This Sunday from 11 am to 5 pm, the City of Austin will hold an event at 5359 Burnet Rd, outside the Halina Day Spa (Clay and Lawnmont), to show off a new cross-walk beacon and explore inexpensive ways to make Burnet Rd more pedestrian-friendly.  Ice cream, games and live music will be provided. 

 

This is something I support.  In fact, the event is very similar to a ‘Walktoberfest’ event concept that Sustainable Neighborhoods and Violet Crown Community Works explored a few years ago. 

 

That said, I also have misgivings.  They are not about the event per se, but rather about the event’s place in the City of Austin’s wider strategy for corridors like Burnet. Here are four questions to consider as you attend the event.

 

  1. What can the space do for people?
  2. Will the space benefit people of all ages?
  3. How will such spaces be acquired?
  4. How much will the space contribute to connectivity?

 

What can the space do for people?

 

The City has invested most of its time and resources to the narrow ‘streetscape’ right along the corridor.  This “Great Streets” vision makes the corridor accessible not just to cars, but to pedestrians, cyclists and transit-users. 


All good.  But this streetscape
zone is also what I call Too Loud To Linger.  The traffic exhaust and noise (typically 20 dB higher than a block off the corridor) intrude on the pedestrian experience.  More on this here. 

Space right along the corridor is suitable for shopping or reaching transit, but can’t serve as a calm place for the community to gather, for children to safely play, for people to get a breath of fresh air. 

 

Even flagship corridors like South Congress suffer from this.  Here is a photo of my six year old in front of the Big Top Candy store, from a bike staycation our family took this summer.  She wanted to get outside for a bit to warm up.  But once outside, she spent the whole time cowered down next to the window.

 

Happily, the Burnet Better Block event is not right up against Burnet.  The City is temporarily closing off an entire block of Clay Ave, so that most of the space is farther from the street and suitable for most any kind of plaza or park function.  A parklet in this space could have shaded seating, a playground, a water feature, games, landscaping, or whatever else the City or adjacent businesses can scrounge up funding for.  The air and noise quality would be acceptable. 

 

A space like this not only draws people to services and transit.  It can serve as a place where the community comes together.

 

 


Will the space benefit people of all ages?

 

The City is billing the event as one for all ages, including families.  Here again, the event concept is very similar to the Walktoberfest concept that my group explored (sans beer).

 

But the location of the site aptly illustrates how housing policies will slowly and permanently skew the community’s demographics.  Almost no families live in the big VMU’s located on either side of the event site.  These two big apartments represent hundreds of units, whereas the proposed policy to put family-suitable ‘missing middle’ housing in areas behind the corridor would yield an order of magnitude less housing.  This over time will affect the mix of retail and services, as has happened in areas closer to Downtown.  It could affect the programming of the park itself.  If most people living near the parklet aren’t kids, then why invest in a playground? 

 

The City’s zoning reform process, CodeNext, has not made housing balance a priority.  To have even the possibility of a balanced community by age, you need upwards of 70% of the total housing to have more than one bedroom.  The City’s recent proposal for affordable housing called for a minimum of just 25% multi-bedroom housing, and that was only for the subsidized units.  Most new housing is market rate, and that housing along Burnet is yielding about the same distorted unit mix -  only 25% units with more than one bedroom.

 


How will the space be acquired?

 

Acquiring space slightly off the corridor will be incredibly hard.  The land is expensive and getting more so. 

 

Unfortunately, no one at the City is currently championing this priority.  

 

Parks Department has yet to prioritize open space acquisition near corridors.  PARD is cash-strapped and tends to acquire park space where it is cheapest, not where it is most useful. 

 

The recent CodeNext ‘prescription’ papers that lay out in more detail how future zoning will work don’t offer a strategy for getting open space in support of corridor mobility.

 

The upcoming mobility bond seems to only fund improvements in the Too Loud To Linger streetscape next to the busy corridor.

 

Sunday’s Burnet event hints at one desperate strategy – street closures.  The last block of a side street is closed off and turned into a kind of pocket park.  Such a strategy has been explored in other cities.  But this approach works best in places closer to downtown, with lots of small streets along the corridor.  It’s still fairly convenient for traffic to get out on other streets that weren’t closed off.  Out here on Burnet, the block sizes are larger.  Closing one street puts disproportionate traffic down the remaining streets.

 


How much will the space contribute to connectivity?

 

To get the best trade-off between value and cost, mobility open space needs to be obtained where it does the most good – on routes leading to the rapid transit stations. 

 

The Clay location is almost exactly half way between the two rapid bus stations.  Its value in contributing to connectivity is not as high as would be space accessing the Koenig or North Loop rapid bus stations.

 

That’s not to say that the community might not support a parklet at Clay.  But that decision should be one for the community to make, based on a careful evaluation of the trade-offs.

 


Getting to a Community-Serving Corridor

 

Sustainable Neighborhoods is pushing twin initiatives this year to make corridors work better for our community.  CodeNext needs to set aggressive goals for balanced housing mix, at least for certain areas of the city like Burnet.  Also, we are trying to get a resolution from City boards and commissions calling for a comprehensive strategy for “mobility open space” at transit hubs, including along corridors like Burnet.

 

Pushing these initiatives requires volunteers to go donate time or speak at public meetings.  This autumn is the critical time to push these policies.  Please email me at zettner@snaustin.org to let me know if you’d like to support these initiatives, or learn more about the details. Thank you!