What is the SN Vision for Burnet Rd, and How Credible Is It?

posted Jan 3, 2016, 12:23 PM by Steven Zettner   [ updated Jan 11, 2016, 6:16 PM ]

In November 2007, following a bruising year for North Central Austin neighborhoods that included both the Vertical Mixed Use zoning process and the Wal-Mart fight, I and other activists involved in the Allandale, Brentwood, Crestview, North Shoal Creek and Wooten neighborhood associations got together as individuals to discuss a realistic long-term vision for growth along our big commercial streets that our community might support, rather than oppose.  We founded SN and adopted the following vision statement:


SN's vision is to have new development implemented in North Central Austin in a way that is sustainable and neighborhood-friendly.  We imagine a number of distinctive neighborhood centers along the Core Transit Corridors, each with adequate open space to foster a sense of community, robust mass transit options to ameliorate traffic impact, and walkability not only on the arterials, but extending into the districts.  The centers should be attractive to a diverse demographic, including families and seniors.


In retrospect, I'm pleased with how this vision presciently captured the three key elements that have remained our organization's urgent focus for the last decade:  


1) organization of new development clustered around rapid transit stations, even along “early suburban” commercial streets like Burnet.  The SN vision explicitly rejects the “continuous VMU” model of big apartments all up and down the corridor, that was popular back in 2006-7.  Put another way, SN has advocated for a ‘compact and connected’ development model, not a ‘compact and occasionally-connected’ model like City Council continues to endorse along streets like Burnet or S Lamar.  The SN ‘centers’ model by its visual arrangement also embues a stronger emotional connection to place.


2) the need for sufficient public space, arranged not just along the side of a busy corridor where conditions are too loud to linger, but extending away laterally from the commercial street and transit station, to achieve both safe and relaxed walking and biking conditions, and places where neighbors of all ages can safely gather and become acquainted. Here again, this arrangement reinforces loyalty to place.


3) assurance that new development can accommodate a truly diverse demographic, including families and seniors who tend to be the long-term residents most invested in their communities, but who are generally underrepresented in, or even excluded from a majority of housing in, newly redeveloped urban areas. SN has adopted the Austin-Round Rock regional distribution of people by age and income as a benchmark to define local diversity.  By that definition, not withstanding that the Burnet Rd area is mostly white, we are by age and income one of the most diverse communities in urban Austin. 


Sadly, none of these key SN vision elements have been adequately addressed in actionable municipal policies, a decade after we first formally requested them.  That failure gives credence to the concern of some other Burnet-area activists that the SN vision is simply unattainable.  This is my greatest fear – to be the coauthor and champion of a work of fiction, one that results in neighborhood concessions, in exchange for poor development that ultimately erodes our community’s diversity and sense of place.


It is a fear that should be shared by City of Austin policymakers.  For everything called for in the SN vision is consistent with the vision and goals laid out in the Imagine Austin comprehensive plan.


Over the coming weeks, this blog will explore in detail those issues pertinent to the success or failure of the SN vision, and potentially of the Burnet Rd corridor plan:


  • an inventory of our community’s existing strengths, as captured by an SN survey in June 2015 of over 500 Burnet Rd area residents
  • the lack of neighborhood trust in City of Austin planning efforts, including CodeNext, the inconvenient matter of neighborhood plans, and certain critical items to redress before we should start the Burnet corridor plan
  • an SN report card on City of Austin policies that affect the potential for success or failure of the SN vision, and perhaps of the Burnet Rd corridor plan
  • deeper analysis of each component of the vision, potential solutions and their trade-offs
  • updates on progress of the corridor plan, in the context of continued work on the new CodeNext Land Development Code rewrite
  • thoughtful perspectives shared from other stakeholders, whether for, against, or tangential to the SN vision
  • specific steps that we as area residents and small business owners can take to influence the process



I think that 2016 will be the year in which we know whether the Sustainable Neighborhoods vision is credible.  I hope that many area residents and other interested parties will come to agree that the SN vision is a sincere and rational attempt to optimize diverse needs, while protecting what is most important about our existing community.  I hope that people who care about our community will make time to participate constructively in the public process over the coming year.


Happy New Year!


Steven Zettner