City vision for lakefront: More parkland, more tall buildings

Under one scenario of the city of Austin’s latest vision for the south side of Lady Bird Lake, a watercolor image depicts a vibrant “green urban” area — but also a cluster of high-rise towers that could be taller than anything currently along that side of the lake.

On Tuesday, city planner Alan Holt showed the City Council the latest version of the ongoing South Central Waterfront Initiative, a planning effort he has been spearheading for more than three years.

The plan was met favorably by some council members, while other members expressed concerns about traffic impacts, and one questioned if a plan is needed at all.

The latest scenario calls for up to 8.6 million square feet of development within the 118-acre waterfront area, which currently has 3.2 million square feet of office, hotel, residential and other development.

Holt is scheduled to present a master plan to the City Council in June. If adopted by the council, the plan will set expectations on community benefits from the project and give the city a basis for negotiating with that area’s private landowners in any future zoning cases involving their properties, Holt said.

The city wants to work with the landowners to balance the intensity of development on their land with the city’s desire to gain community benefits within the district, such as affordable housing; additional open space and parkland; enhanced connections to and along the waterfront and hike-and-bike trail; and a unified street network.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity to move ahead to accomplish something that would have very deep and lasting value for the city,” Holt said.

The planning process has involved property owners, architects, consultants and public meetings with citizens, neighbors and other interested people.

Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose district includes the south waterfront area, said she was impressed with Holt’s public outreach — and the plan itself.

“It will help Austinites better enjoy that part of town,” Tovo said.

Council Member Sheri Gallo said she is concerned about additional traffic as the area redevelops, saying such impacts are all too often ignored.

“I’m really concerned about what I see there already, and want to make sure the vehicle trips are calculated into this,” Gallo said.

Council Member Don Zimmerman said Austin has a “slavish obedience to planning” and questioned the need for another plan in a city that is “one of the most unaffordable places to live.”

Holt said the plan is a proactive approach to help the city get ahead of a tidal wave of new private investment — an estimated $1.2 billion to $1.8 billion worth — that the city anticipates is coming to the south waterfront in the next 15 years or so.

The plan aims to avert a “piecemeal, haphazard” approach to future redevelopment in the area, and instead create a lively, pedestrian-friendly district with significant public benefits, Holt said.

Cory Walton, president of the Bouldin Creek Neighborhood Association who is familiar with the waterfront plan, said, “The fact that it is being presented as an overriding plan … and that it behooves (individual property owners) to participate in this bigger, overarching plan” is a positive.

However, Walton said it remains to be seen “if the willpower is there” on the part of the City Council to get the money to support affordable housing and other community benefits.

Holt told the council that the “big domino” among the 33 properties in the south waterfront area is the current American-Statesman site. All the properties are privately owned, except One Texas Center, an office building the city owns on Barton Springs Road.

City planners see the nearly 19-acre Statesman site as affording the greatest opportunity for expanded park space and other public areas that could become “the great lawn of a great crown jewel,” Holt said.

Holt told the council that the city’s plan envisions as much as 60 percent of the Statesman property would be in the “public realm,” which could include park space, tree-lined streets and other public areas. In exchange for those community benefits, the city’s current financial model is looking at offering as much as 2.1 million square feet of development on the site, although those negotiations would remain to be worked out in any future zoning case, Holt said.

The Statesman site has existing approvals for up to 660,000 square feet of buildings, and it currently is developed almost to that capacity, Holt said.

Late last year, the Statesman property was transferred from parent company Cox Enterprises’ corporate ownership to members of the Cox family. The family is seeking proposals from developers interested in working with the Cox family members on redeveloping the site into a mixed-use project, with the deadline for submissions Friday.

Alex Taylor, executive vice president of Cox Enterprises and great-grandson of company founder James M. Cox, said by email: “Cox has always viewed success as the sum of good business decisions, great people and being a productive part of our community. We love Austin, and it is our hope that whatever we do with this property is good for business but also good for Austin.”

The waterfront plan to be presented in June will include a number of tools to help finance public improvements in the district. Those could include offering developers additional height and density in exchange for green space or public easements, public-private partnerships and a tax increment financing district.

Currently, the parcels that make up the south waterfront area generate $12.9 million in tax revenue, which includes $2.5 million for the city of Austin, Holt said. Under one potential development scenario, the total tax base could soar to $59.3 million, with $11.7 million of that the city’s share, Holt said.

Mike Kennedy is a member of Stakeholder Outreach Committee for the waterfront planning effort. He is managing director in the Austin office of Avison Young, an international commercial brokerage company, and represents Webster Interests, one of the largest property owners in the waterfront area.

Kennedy said increased development in the area will add to the tax base, helping fund parks and other “quality of life enhancements that make a better city.”

“The South Central Waterfront District is a legacy development opportunity for the (property) owners and the city of Austin and neighborhoods to give the city and South Congress a real sense of place and identity that in many ways may rival downtown in a very positive way,” Kennedy said. “Mayor (Steve) Adler has encouraged us to think big. Beyond traditional Austin ideas. This is an opportunity to do that and continue to embellish the skyline and quality of Austin while adding amenities to the neighborhood.”

Some frequent trail visitors seem to agree with the city’s vision for the area.

Linda Langlais and Marco Hernandez, a couple from Cedar Park, said they visit the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail several times a month and spend the entire day cycling on it.

But they said making the trails wider to allow them more room to maneuver with their bicycles would help and added that they would like an open public space, like the one near Auditorium Shores, to have more rest stops along their ride.

“We like to stop in the little park areas every so often,” Langlais said. “We hang out for a while and rest, people watch.”

Alissa Podber, a fitness competitor who was walking the trail Saturday, said she would like to see a restaurant on the waterfront where people could enjoy happy hours after work.

“It’d be nice to do something kind of like The Domain in North Austin, where you have a place for happy hour and shops, and some kid-friendly places, too,” Podber said. “I live up there and everyone goes to The Domain.”

Additional material from American-Statesman staff writer James Barragán.

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