REALTORS® Take Action, Help Rejuvenate Austin's Heart and Core

John Rosshirt, associate broker and part owner of Stan-berry and Associates in Austin, Texas, likes to quote Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell — “For us to stay the same, we have to change.” Rosshirt says the nation’s fastest growing city can’t be afraid to change in order to pre-serve its values, its natural assets and maintain its outstanding quality of life.

Austin’s rapid growth means the vibrant downtown is spilling over in all directions, including areas that weren’t initially designed for city living, people or the compact walkability that creates thriving metropolitan areas. One of those areas is the South Central Waterfront — an area that encompasses 97 near-downtown acres, including the Lady Bird Lake shoreline. The area currently contains a distribution center, a variety of office buildings, several hotels, some small restaurants and condos and lots of parking lots.

“The area is a hodgepodge with no real connectivity. No lots are the same size or shape. They were just carved out as needed. It’s an area that needs a master plan,” explained John Rosshirt who also chairs NAR’s Smart Growth Advisory Board. “The South Central Waterfront is part of the heart and core of Austin and if the heart is strong, so is the whole body.”

This area, equivalent in size to 33 downtown blocks, represents $1.2 billion in potential development during the next 20 years. But, as city officials note, the area historically has lacked a development vision and instead still relies on a piecemeal approach that evaluates development on a parcel-by-parcel basis rather than a long-term plan that meets community and private needs and aligns with community values. “

Current zoning regulations meant that no one could get what they wanted. Landowners couldn’t maximize development. Neighborhood residents lacked access to the waterfront. The city couldn’t create affordable housing or deal with traffic congestion. The area also has environ-mentally sensitive riverfront and creek areas that need to be protected to maintain the standards that Austin has set so high for itself,” explains Rosshirt.

Vision + Design Intensive Charrette

City planners and community leaders believe the appropriate and thoughtful rejuvenation of the South Central Waterfront will create a lively, accessible and affordable area that will also be a model for the rest of the city. Rosshirt says that commitment to rejuvenation was the reason for a charrette in April that brought together local stakeholders and national experts to share perspectives and visions and develop a long-term plan for the area. Alan Holt, principal planner with Austin’s Urban Design Division, and Emily Chenevert, Governmental Affairs Director of the Austin Board of REALTORS® (ABoR), recognized the need for combining a community conversation about the South Central Waterfront with expert direction on how to maximize the area’s potential. The ABoR assisted in making the charrette possible by securing a $15,000 NAR Smart Growth Action Grant and ensured the charrette’s success by providing local experts to assist the charrette’s design/consultant teams.

“The REALTORS® wanted to get involved in the process and the city wanted someone with smart growth experience. It was a natural fit,” explains Rosshirt.

The charrette included a vision workshop, an open studio so the public could weigh in on proposed drawings and plans and a review forum where the conceptual plan was unveiled. The charrette brought together approximately 170 residents, property owners, stakeholders, city staff, and local and national experts for a robust com-munity discussion. One out-of-state landowner flew in several times to participate throughout the charrette. The Vision + Design Intensive charrette produced a report and vision framework that was later approved by the city council’s Comprehensive Planning and Advisory Committee.

Rosshirt describes the current South Central Waterfront as mainly an employment center, but says the long-term plan for the area will transform it into a destination both during the business day and outside of work hours. 67Plans calls for a paseo or public walkway that will be home to stores and restaurants. Replacing parking lots with parking structures will help create green space. A light rail line into the area would provide alternative transportation and affordable accessibility to jobs, housing and community amenities. The South Central Waterfront will become more than a place where people work, but a place where people want to be.

Greening America’s Capitals Program

The area is getting an extra boost to its development efforts. Austin was one of five cities around the country to win the EPA’s 2014 Greening America’s Capitals award. The designation means that Austin will receive assistance to create green infrastructure and pedestrian and bike improvements in the South Central Water-front. The program will also assist in environmental enhancements to the area. Rosshirt says the work of EPA designers and consultants is estimated at $50,000 in development assistance.

Successful planning and development relies on the work of a variety of individuals and groups. By taking a leader-ship role in assisting with the April charrette, the ABoR is helping plot Austin’s future. But that’s not the only lasting benefit of the charrette. Rosshirt says the experience provided great face-to-face opportunities to create relationships with Austin leaders and that will help make the South Central Waterfront plan a success and a model for the rest of the city.

“ABoR’s goal was to be more involved, and thanks to the NAR Smart Growth Action Grant, we were appreciated, acknowledged and involved and it was a great benefit to the city,” says Rosshirt. “The primary return is we’ll have good development and the market will stay strong. And that’s good for everyone.”

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About On Common Ground

A free, semi-annual magazine published by NAR, On Common Ground presents a wide range of views on smart growth issues, with the goal of encouraging dialog among REALTORS®, elected officials, and other interested citizens.

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