A plan to promote more dense, mixed-use development along the gradually-changing East Riverside Drive is coming back to the City Council for a vote Thursday.
Originally presented for a vote in November, the plan’s approval stalled as city officials and property owners along the 3.5 mile stretch of East Riverside tangled over some of the plan’s rules. The city’s vision of a boulevard inviting to pedestrians bumps up against the reality there now, which includes several fast food restaurants with drive-thrus.
A chief sticking point was a proposed ban of drive-thrus that applied to new development and existing development that is significantly renovated. Several fast food restaurant owners warned the council in November that the new rules would eventually force them to close.
“The vision for East Riverside and the corridor that we’re adopting is to move away from auto-centric (development) and that does not include drive-thrus,” Council Member Laura Morrison said Wednesday.
City staffers plan to offer changes to the drive-thru rules they say will satisfy East Riverside business owners.
Erica Leak, a city planner who oversaw creating the plan, said the staff will recommend allowing current drive-thrus to remain in place even if they have a major remodel. An existing drive-thru restaurant that rebuilds on the same site would have to follow the plan’s design standards of building up to the sidewalk and having the vehicle entrance in the back or side of the property, according to the proposed changes. New drive-thrus would still be banned, Leak said.
Morrison said she would not want to force out drive-thrus that are currently compliant with city rules.
Limiting drive-thrus maintains the plan’s goal of a pedestrian-friendly environment and having dense developments that are not auto-oriented, Leak said. “It’s hard to design drive-thrus so they don’t take away from the pedestrian environment; the more driveways you have going across sidewalks, the less safe it is for pedestrians,” Leak said. After meeting with groups representing property and drive-thru owners, Leak said she believes they are mostly happy with those proposed changes to the plan. An attorney for that group did not return a call Wednesday.
The plan envisions East Riverside between Interstate 35 to Texas 71 transformed with dense residential and mixed-use development, high-rises at some intersections, and storefronts with wide sidewalks. New residential and commercial buildings have cropped up in that stretch in recent years, but much of the heavily-trafficked road is still dotted with squat strip malls beyond yawning parking lots.
If the council approves the plan, new developments would be subject to the regulations, which divide the area into five districts, two of which are limited to dense residential development, while two others require housing and offices above commercial storefronts. The fifth area accommodates light industrial buildings.
Charles Heimsath, a local real estate consultant who worked with city staffers on the plan, said it is a way for the city “to get out in front of market forces” that already have zeroed in on the area, and “help mold the character of the development” it wants to encourage along Riverside.
He said the plan would create some certainty for developers. Depending on their proposed projects, they could gravitate toward the more or less dense areas.