Why Open Space on Burnet Rd, in the Right Place, May Not Happen

posted Mar 19, 2016, 3:37 PM by Steven Zettner   [ updated Mar 20, 2016, 6:49 AM ]

In my previous blog, I explored why we need a minimum amount of public space near Burnet Rd, and why it’s so important to catch that space while it's still available.  I proposed a ‘linear mall’ open space model (think of UT's West Mall at Guadalupe) that puts most of the space near, but not on, the corridor.


In this blog, I’ll revisit why it’s such a big issue for Burnet Rd, and why there's still risk City leaders may punt on this issue.



Why is Burnet So At Risk for Open Space?


The Burnet corridor, unlike Downtown but much like other commercial streets built out after WWII, was designed for easy car access.  Most early suburban corridors have little or no existing public space situated to support walkable communities. 


Sustainable Neighborhoods first called for minimum open space requirements eight years ago.  Allandale, Brentwood, Crestview, North Shoal Creek and Wooten neighborhood associations have passed resolutions in support. 


Yet in those eight years, the amount of public space on Burnet has gone down, not up.  A particularly painful case – Travis County’s sale of the Farmer’s Market property, which used to be a community gathering space, with no provision for a meaningful gathering space as part of future development.


Zoning of VMU in 2006 compounded the Farmer’s Market case.  Staff wrote the VMU rules in such a way that the VMU ordinance’s modest open space provisions trumped the more community-serving open space provisions for that district in the Brentwood neighborhood plan.


In 2016, the result is a super-dense apartment block, with only a modest alcove that connects to nowhere.    I understand the alcove will be an outdoor bar area about a third of the area of the old Pour House courtyard.  The rest of the ‘open space’ is buffering along the corridor itself, unsuitable for child play or casual conversations with neighbors.


No Country for Old Men.  Or Old Women.  Or Kids.  Or Parents.



How Did We Get Here?


After eight years of our community calling for more public space on Burnet, we actually have less.  There are numerous reasons for this. 


One is historic planning bias.  Most planning conversations up until the last couple of years have involved the true urban core, generally south of 45th, where there is considerable legacy open space, even near the big commercial streets.  Think about N Lamar near Enfield.  The Shoal Creek bike route runs right under the road, providing comfortable east-west connectivity.  There’s a big legacy park, some smaller specialized parks and natural areas along the creek, plus quasi-civic resources, like the YMCA.  When policymakers say “we’ll do more with less,” (I’m paraphrasing here from this week’s CodeNext Prescription paper – “the new code likely will offer an options-based palette of urban-green options aimed at providing high-functioning landscape in small places”), they’re assuming there’s already at least a minimum level of meaningful open space in the area. 


Another planning bias is towards the needs of the young adults who are driving the current market shift towards urban places, over the needs of children or the elderly.  The Vertical Mixed Use development model (the one responsible for the new Burnet Market Place) envisioned a “vibrant” and continuous pedestrian streetscape along the side of the busy commercial corridor.  Sidewalk zones are a great first step, enabling access to shopping or transit. But there was no consideration given to where the community gathers or where children can safely play with limited adult supervision.  Conditions directly on Burnet Rd itself can certainly be improved to allow retail access, but they will always be “too loud to linger.” 


Funding Sources – Wholly Inadequate and Unfocused


Imagine Austin commits us to shape compact and connected communities that serve people of all ages.  But the acid test is whether City leaders will commit scarce resources to achieve this goal. 


Land along Burnet Rd has gotten obscenely expensive.  Meanwhile, Parks Department (PARD) struggles to maintain its vast and scattered network of traditional parks.  In the last PARD long-range plan, the pedestrian connectivity focus was on access to existing parks, not deploying new parks to BE the connectivity within walkable communities.  That’s a hugely important distinction.  It frees Parks Department to buy new parkland up to 2 miles away from redevelopment - i.e. based on a drivable service area.  One of the sources of income intended to support new parks in growth zones – the Parkland Dedication fee that developers pay when they build new housing – has been scavenged to pay for park space mainly outside the urban core.

Recent changes to Parkland Dedication rules also apply the "more with less" principle to allow developers to provide less space in return for improvements on the space.  That would be fine once a district had achieved a minimum for quantity of space.  Improvements can be added later.  Open space can't be.


In theory, the City could help close that gap on minimum open space by acquiring parkland directly.  Bonds are an obvious funding source.  But in the 2012 bond package, most of the (very limited) open space funding went to maintain existing facilities, or to acquire more water quality land outside the city.  The bond package dedicated just $4 million for acquisition of new parks for the entire city, and here again, most of that followed parkland dedication funding to acquire land on suburban greenbelts.


To their credit, City leaders and Parks Department are seriously reviewing funding options to get more urban park space.  Council Member Leslie Pool helped Parks Department get Parkland Dedication fees raised. One option getting a lot of attention is the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district, which captures part of the increase in taxes in an area subject to growth, and dedicates that funding to infrastructure projects within the district. 


Unfortunately, the City is very conservative with TIF districts, and there will be intense competition for them.  Some people argue that TIFs are only applicable if they stimulate new growth. On Burnet, the growth is happening anyway.   Even if TIF funding becomes available for Burnet, staff may use it to do other important things like upgrade utilities and sidewalks, or build affordable housing, rather than acquire expensive transit parks near the corridor while the land is still available.


Even if Parks Department had more funding, City rules prevent PARD from bidding on land at market rates.  In the context of a transit corridor, PARD could not possibly buy any park space.  If they did manage to buy land ahead of development, they have no mechanism to land bank it.




Another thing to watch is CodeNext.  Staff just released a ‘Prescription’ paper with high-level details on open space policy.  At first glance, it looks like the City will let developers choose what open space features they want to build, based on a menu.  That approach has pros and cons.  The obvious con for communities is a lack of assurance on what outdoor amenities will get added.  It’s not yet clear if strategic locations, like transit hubs, will really get the features that make them the future centers of walkable communities.



How Do We Get the Public Space?


The public space issue is solvable, but only with tremendous focus. Unfortunately, if we wait until the Burnet corridor process to address this issue, it will be too late.  The corridor plan will rely on CodeNext rules, which are getting locked down over the next several months.


City leaders need to hear from the public on this issue right now, during the CodeNext public review.  In May, the City will seek public input on new rules for Parkland Dedication.  I’ll send out Burnet-oriented summaries and meeting dates as such opportunities arise.