Why Open Space on Burnet Rd, In the Right Place, Is a Must-Have

posted Mar 6, 2016, 4:48 PM by Steven Zettner


Sustainable Neighborhoods has raised two ‘must-haves’ for the Burnet corridor plan in order to achieve our vision for neighborhood-friendly redevelopment:


  •     A minimum of 70% housing that doesn’t physically exclude any household type
  •    A minimum of 10% open space near the MetroRapid “village centers”


Like roads, housing mix and open space are hard-to-change features.  You can’t just wave your wand 10 or 20 years after development occurs.  If we don’t put a credible strategy in place to accomplish these objectives before development occurs, the redevelopment itself shapes "facts on the ground" that preclude having these features later.   


In recent posts, I laid out arguments for the first objective – retaining a minimum mix of 70% housing that doesn’t exclude any households, in particular families. 


The following post explores why getting enough open space in the right place is so important to support both the community and walking, biking and transit.


Why is Open Space Important? 


I’m using the term ‘open space’ loosely to mean any freely accessible ground-level space that supports walking (or biking).  Relevant examples of public space include transit plazas and malls, pocket parks, school playgrounds, trails, sidewalks.  


These amenities can provide transportation, recreational, and civic benefits. 


Take a transportation example.  In a middle class community like Burnet Rd where almost everyone has a car, each trip to the grocery store involves a choice between driving, or walking/biking/transit.  If the choice is between a quick and easy air-conditioned car trip, versus a long, sweat-drenched hike along a loud and smelly congested avenue, it’s really not a choice.  I’ll drive.


A walk to the grocery store along a shaded path through a pocket park where neighbors are hanging out represents a completely different story.  In that context, the walk can represent higher value than the drive.  That’s especially the case as inner city congestion and decreased parking start to make the car trip less convenient.


The 10% minimum standard comes from analysis of numerous mixed use destinations around Austin.  Places that seem to work well, like the 5-minute walking radius around City Hall, have abundant open space features – 15-20%.  Conversely, places like Crestview Station that seem a bit cramped have about 7% open space.  A 10% rule seems like a good minimum standard, but more would be better.



Why Is the Arrangement of Public Space Important?


The benefits that public space provides -  transportation, recreation, and community-building – can reinforce each other.  But to achieve that synergy, public space needs to be in the right place. 


In the context of a corridor like Burnet Rd, Sustainable Neighborhoods has championed a “linear mall” open space model that wrings a lot of value in terms of transportation, recreation and community-building.  This model is cost efficient, because the open space is prioritized for just those places along the corridor with the most people and best transit.  It mitigates some risks, like vandalism and child safety.


I’m going to illustrate this open space model using the area around the MetroRapid (rapid bus) station at Burnet and North Loop.  I want to emphasize that this is a concept – I’m not endorsing specific changes to any given property, nor any given timeline.  There are different ways to solve for the same problem, and local residents and property owners need to be deeply involved in finding that solution during the planning process.  (As someone who lives a half block from a rapid bus station, I’m sensitive to that).



The Linear Transit Mall


You can see an example of a ‘linear mall’ on this concept map, running from the rapid bus station on the southwest corner of the Burnet-North Loop intersection, southwest to Yarborough Library.  The “business” end of the mall would be hard-scaped – a plaza adjacent to the station and to businesses. This end of the mall is mainly about transportation – getting people to where they need to go.


As you get farther away from Burnet, the mall offers more nature (in this example it’s on a creek), with enough space for a playground and community events.  Such a pocket park connects multiple destinations within the district.  The parklet should NOT be right on the corridor where conditions are “too loud to linger,” nor so far away from the district that it would be prone to vandalism, or draw random people into lightly populated single family areas.  The park’s location in a “Goldilocks Zone” not too close and not too far from the corridor draws people on foot or bike, towards services and transit. 


In short, the business end of the mall, and the civic-recreational end of the mall, reinforce.  You get tremendous synergy from transportation, recreation, and community building.  This powerful feature is located at a place on the corridor with the most residents, businesses, and overall transit quality.  As a concept, it can be extended to most other rapid bus stations along Burnet or other corridors.


In my next blog, I’ll explore the challenges of getting even this basic infrastructure in place, given current City of Austin policy and funding challenges.