Roadway infrastructure needs review, residents say
With at least four new developments targeted for South Lamar Boulevard between Barton Springs Road and Oltorf Street—most of which are scheduled for completion in 2013—residents are expressing concern over whether the corridor’s infrastructure can handle the new development and whether the City of Austin is doing enough to keep the cost of living along South Lamar affordable.
If these four developments are seen through their construction, these properties—Gibson Flats, Hanover South Lamar, Lamar Plaza and Post South Lamar—collectively would bring more than 36,000 square feet of additional retail space to the corridor, as well as more than 1,000 residential units. And while nearby stakeholders say they are excited to see the corridor’s development blossom, there are unintended consequences that city leaders and developers may be overlooking.
“I think some of the initial changes [along South Lamar] were pretty mild, but also fairly positive,” said Andrew Elder, president of the Zilker Neighborhood Association. “It was turnover of some of [South Lamar’s] older industrial uses into some retail, small businesses, bars and restaurants. New things were coming in with these older establishments and bringing in residents and amenities, which I think were pretty positive.”
Residents became concerned, however, when one development involved the demolition of an affordable housing complex that resulted in the displacement of area families, Elder said.
“The first area of concern … that I observed was when we started to see changeover from, say, the Stoneridge apartment complex on South Lamar, which was purchased and subsequently torn down in favor of what’s currently being constructed there by Post Properties,” Elder said.
Post Properties is constructing Post South Lamar, a development that includes 298 new residential units and 8,500 square feet of retail space in four- and five-story buildings.
“In that case, we had to give up something, and we gave up a lot of affordable housing and families, particularly those with kids at Zilker Elementary,” Elder said. “In the case of Stoneridge, I think it’s a good case study of how density is not going to help us accomplish goals as a neighborhood or as a city in terms of having more transit options, children attending schools and affordable housing. That’s where I get concerned, that development isn’t pushing those things forward and may, in fact, be setting those things back.”
When the Post South Lamar development began, it avoided an important theme vital to the vibrancy of South Lamar, according to Jeff Jack, chairman of the City of Austin Board of Adjustment and ex-officio member of the Austin Planning Commission.
“We lost about 140 affordable housing units and replaced them with about 300 new, high-end condos,” Jack said. “We will get a few affordable units in the new project, but it will change the economic mix of the community.”
These new developments are upping the ante of sorts for affordability along South Lamar, Jack said. While new, higher-end developments target the South Lamar corridor for construction, it indirectly places a heavier burden on local residents to help support the corridor’s coming of age.
“There’s great development pressure along South Lamar, especially where you have smaller commercial lots that normally wouldn’t be suitable for a big project, but you have developers who would like to buy the residential property behind these [small lots], bring those two lots together under commercial zoning and then have enough acreage to build a bigger project,” Jack said. “This can increase the valuation of residential property, and then there is an upward pressure on adjacent residential property taxes.”
As the cost of living continues to see an upward trend for South Austin, the sort of growth the city is planning for in that area does not match up with South Lamar’s current transit and utility infrastructure, Jack said.
“When you look at South Lamar, and you add the kinds of density that’s in the Imagine Austin plan’s original proposal, where they would add 7,500 people every two miles—the infrastructure roadway isn’t there to support it,” he said.
Jack said he performed a study of the roadway to see what would happen should those people be added in those coming years.
“If you build all the vertical mixed-use projects the city would have to have in order to meet that density, the added car traffic would result in gridlock all day long on South Lamar,” he said.
Dave Sullivan, chairman of the City of Austin Planning Commission, said while South Lamar will soon house more residents, the corridor is developing more of an urban atmosphere that will require residents to drive less.
“With all the apartments we’re creating there that are going to provide thousands of new units, it probably will create crowding on the road there,” Sullivan said, adding that recently announced Capital Metro rapid-bus system will serve as a fast-paced bus system that will offer stops along South Lamar that will “boost transit use. Bus rapid-transit will help that … and will absorb that.” Editor’s Note: See Page 1 for more on the new rapid-transit bus system.
Sullivan said the addition of the large developments will continue to attract retail, dining and city services destinations that will reduce the need for people to drive along the roadway.
Leading the way
On April 11, the Planning Commission unanimously approved the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan and forwarded it to City Council for review. Jack said the from the transit priorities he sees in the plan, he believes the Planning Commission is on track to providing more solutions for the corridor’s planned growth and development.
“I think the Planning Commission has recognized the problem of all this increased density still being dependent on the automobile, and they have recommended in the comp plan that the increase in density needs to be coupled with the availability of transit,” Jack said. “If you’re going to increase development along these corridors, we have at least got to make sure the transit agency is going to support it with available bus service.”