We want to see Anderson Ln evolve over the coming 20 years from a car-friendly environment to a people- and bike-friendly environment.
Traffic will kill VMU
Our vision is in alignment with the intention of City policies like VMU. However, we feel that the VMU ordinance is either not the right tool to accomplish our vision, or needs to be updated to better support the neighborhood center goals of community, walkability and transit use.
What VMU does well is create an attractive street scape along the main arterial. This is a great step forward from existing street environments around Austin. However, there is a risk that, without considerable additional planning and investment, VMU streetscapes in mid-town areas will fail to achieve their purpose. Traffic on mid-town corridors like Anderson is already high and will certainly increase as more residents are added, deterring pedestrians. You can see this effect along parts of Cesar Chavez, where there are sidewalks and trees, but no sense of pedestrian buzz. It's just too noisy and smelly. It's not safe for children. Imagine Sesame Street, and then imagine Anderson Ln. There's a disconnect here.
Successful main streets like 2nd Street, or the Main Street project in Alhambra, California, are built on smaller streets next to big streets that deflect traffic away. Another example is N. Congress Ave., which is part of an extended street grid that distributes traffic. Anderson does not currently have "traffic deflected" companion streets. It is a major east-west traffic corridor and will stay that way for years.
Mixed use corridors as currently defined by the City of Austin distribute people evenly up and down the corridor. This raises the chance that many of the people farther from the transit hubs will drive. The likelihood of driving goes up again because VMU only addresses walkability issues along the arterial. Developers who do VMU actually get "bonuses" that include a waiver on connectivity requirements envisioned for straight commercial development. Neighborhood centers in particular need connectivity to destinations beyond the arterial to encourage community, walkability and transit use.
New Urbanist principles suggest putting most of the new density within easy walking distance (about 1000 ft, or even less in Texas) of where the transit hubs will go. Living near a transit hub greatly increases the likelihood that people will actually use transit. Academic research confirms the self-evident - people hate to use bus stops, particularly in mid-town or suburban areas where the commuting distances and number of transfers is higher.
We understand that VMU is intended to be just the first step. But in some ways it's the easy first step that neighborhoods fear will be the last step, leaving North Central Austin with thousands of more people crammed into narrow, vehicle-congested suburban corridors.
Getting to family-friendly neighborhood centers on Anderson
Sustainable Neighborhoods is working on multiple fronts to implement one or even two family-friendly neighborhood centers on Anderson. The key is to orient family-friendly development along new companion streets that carry less traffic.
In 2007, we participated in the one-year review of the VMU ordinance, advocating minimum requirements for public space features, to be supplemented by publicly-financed features like pocket parks.
In 2008 we contributed to the Parks Department's master plan, which now prioritizes park space within walking distance of multi-family zoned properties and near quality transit stations.
We have supported neighborhood efforts to remove VMU from properties far from the hub of centers. Instead, we would like the City to create a new "live-work" zoning category that would reuse existing small commercial buildings, allowing owners to add a second-story loft. We also support town homes on the outskirts of a district. Town homes are more affordable and are better designed for families.
We are also encouraging efforts to shape bicycle routes that arrive at future centers.
We are providing feedback to CapMetro on land-use integration with MetroRapid (Bus Rapid Transit) site selection on Burnet. We have proposed a new City of Austin "TOD-lite" planning process just for properties closest to BRT stations, that assures plazas and pocket parks. We're also pushing for a future east-west BRT line along Anderson and then out to the Gateway/Arboretum area, so that Burnet-Anderson is truly a "hub".
We would like to see the City develop a BRT transit plaza program modelled on the Great Streets program, with a dedicated funding source that compensates developers for including transit plazas as part of their developments.
We know these changes can't be achieved overnight. But we hope that, by creating a positive vision, we can focus the energies of City policy makers, residents, and property owners on a direction that will benefit everybody.