Courtesy Gateway Planning
Transit-oriented development rebranding hopes to spur growth
Leaders in Leander are taking steps to make the city’s untapped transit district more attractive to potential developers by rebranding the area Legacy Landing.
City staff presented the concept to Leander City Council at a July 21 retreat. The new name must still gain council approval, but the efforts should immediately bring more attention to the transit-oriented development district.
“It’s more of a branding than a re-branding to give it an identity and keep it from being generic,” City Manager Kent Cagle said. “It never really had a name as far as I can tell. Everyone just called it the TOD, so it’s good to give it a brand name.”
Since the TOD was established in 2005, commercial interest in the district has floundered, likely because of investor uncertainty, Urban Designer Pix Howell said. Capital Metro’s Red Line train service to Leander opened in 2008, the same year many Americans first felt the effects of the economic downturn.
“Today, and since 2008, there really has been no money to build anything unless it’s all 100 percent cash financed, and nobody wants to take the risk,” Howell said. “The economy is always going to play a role in the success of these things, and, more importantly, how they develop. But 30 years from now, looking back on it, it’s just going to be blips that you see in how all this developed out.”
The 30-year plan
New construction at Leander’s 2,300-acre TOD is governed by SmartCode, a unified land development ordinance for planning and urban design. The TOD is designed to support substantial pedestrian traffic, single- and multifamily housing, and dense, urban commercial developments. Unlike in other areas of the city that adhere to traditional zoning guidelines based on land use, buildings within the TOD must have multiple uses and be versatile enough to support occupant changes over time.
“With form-based code, what you try to do is pay attention to how the building addresses the street and how the public spaces like sidewalks and plazas work around that. Typically, it tries to encourage the capability for as many different uses as possible,” Howell said. “You can have a hairdresser in a space today, and tomorrow it can be a dentist’s office, and you don’t have to go back through the political [rezoning] process.”
Reluctance to build
In the past six years, developers have been hesitant to build in the TOD because of the slowed economy and, in some cases, unfamiliar SmartCode requirements.
“There are reservations toward the SmartCode because people are not accustomed to change and to retrofitting projects from the original [designs] to fit into SmartCode,” said Dan Steakley, a commercial agent with DEN Property Group LLC, which represents several acres of land within the TOD.
Cagle said traditional developers who would otherwise bring gas stations, strip malls and big-box stores to suburban areas may not be interested in working within the parameters of the city’s TOD SmartCode.
“I believe we could fill it up pretty quickly with single-family houses, strip centers and [big-box chains]. We could probably have a Walmart there fairly quickly,” Cagle said. “But we believe there are other places in town where that type of development is very appropriate. In this part of town, we want to try something different.”
Investor inquiries are on the rise, according to some TOD stakeholders. Steakley said the rebranding could draw more attention to the area and potentially help usher in a new wave of development.
“I think it will accent the pickup of activity and piggyback on the uptick we’re seeing,” Steakley said. “I think we are seeing a real comeback, and it’s going to be in baby-step fashion.”
Rising gas prices could also encourage new businesses to look to the TOD, where Capital Metro park-and-ride customers wait daily for buses and trains. Potential retailers would notice more people using mass transit in Leander, Howell said.
“It’s always weird to drive out there and see cotton fields and realize that someday that’s going to be buildings, but it will happen over time,” he said. “I think the faster gasoline gets expensive, the faster this will develop.”
Austin Community College owns about 100 acres of land within the TOD that is planned for a future campus. ACC has not announced a construction timeline; however, Howell said activity near the college’s property could spur development sooner.
Under a new name
Council planned to discuss the potential growth associated with branding the TOD as Legacy Landing at a special workshop Aug. 16.
“What we want to do is go with a named development rather than just a general zoned area. That’s something we as a council have been asking for,” Mayor Chris Fielder said. “It’s something I wanted to work on personally as well, and now we’ve got to go back and look at if it’s something we really want to consider.”
No matter the outcome, Cagle said the city has set itself up for planned future growth in the TOD.
“We know the principles we have around it are sound, and we have the rail system, and that’s something most communities want and don’t have,” he said. “We have the basics, and it’s solid.”
A guide to SmartCode
SmartCode is a form-based zoning template for designing urban areas with a focus on pedestrian-friendly access to a variety of businesses and services. It folds zoning, subdivision regulations, urban design and architectural standards into one code.
SmartCode strongly emphasizes the outer appearance of buildings rather than what is housed inside. Areas with SmartCode have a natural flow of densities, meaning high-occupancy housing and businesses are at the urban core. This core could include three- to eight-story buildings containing loft apartments, medical offices, cafes or dry cleaning businesses among many other options. Lower-density developments taper out from the urban core to blend the SmartCode area into existing, conventionally zoned parts of town.