Photo by Amy Denney
Capital Metro began construction in September on the stations for its bus rapid transit system, and several North Austin neighborhoods are looking to capitalize on potential development opportunities for adjacent property.
North Austin resident Gabriel Rojas, who is an urban planner with RPS Espey and a member of the city’s Zoning and Platting Commission, said as the MetroRapid stations are built, underdeveloped commercial property and vast parking lots become prime locations for new businesses such as food trailers or kiosks.
“People are wanting these stations to kind of activate the area, bring more of an eclectic mix of services to the neighborhood that you really don’t see on North Lamar,” he said.
Rojas, who is also involved with the North Austin Civic Association, which is a neighborhood organization bounded by Kramer Lane, Metric Boulevard, US 183 and Lamar Boulevard, said that if development comes along, it needs to fit in with the existing neighborhoods.
“At the same time, there’s concern about affordability, too,” he said. “If the streetscape gets improved and you have this nice, new, sleek bus service, are the new condos that come online or apartments themselves, are they going to start pricing out people that historically have lived here?”
Capital Metro plans to start MetroRapid service in 2014. The buses will run from Southpark Meadows Retail Center on South Congress Avenue to the Tech Ridge Park and Ride along North Lamar. The second route will run from the Westgate Transit Center on South Lamar to a northern terminus on Burnet Road. Dan Dawson, vice president of marketing and communications for Capital Metro, said the transit authority is working to add The Domain as the northern terminus on the Burnet Route and possibly add another North Burnet station.
He said the service will be 21 percent to 35 percent faster than the existing local routes. About 25 percent of people in Capital Metro’s service area will live within one-quarter mile of the new routes, Dawson said.
“That offers just an amazing potential for connectivity,” he said.
Capital Metro is constructing 77 bus stations along the two routes, and Dawson said Capital Metro worked with residents and businesses to choose locations near retail centers, development and medical centers. He said the goal is to connect businesses, entertainment, government and retail.
Major developments located near the North Austin stations include the Chinatown Center, the H-E-B at Rundberg Lane and North Lamar, the North Lamar Transit Center, Pickle Research Campus and Northcross Mall.
Capital Metro also is replacing many of the existing bus stops, which often are indicated with a pole, with stations. These stations will have shelter, a bench, boarding and exiting platform, and real-time digital display to announce arrival times of the next rapid bus.
“Anything is better than a pole in a ditch,” said Lisa Hinely, chairwoman of the North Lamar Combined Neighborhood Plan Contact Team, for the area bounded by North Lamar, Braker Lane, I-35 and US 183 and includes the Georgian Acres neighborhood.
She said many residents already rely on public transportation or have just one vehicle.
“The immediate advantage for us is we will have twice as frequent bus service [north of Rundberg],” Hinely said. “You can walk out and know the bus will come.”
One of the first stations constructed is at the Chinatown Center, 10901 N. Lamar Blvd. Capital Metro officially designated it the Chinatown Station on Sept. 20. Dawson said it is about creating a sense of place.
“We’re placemaking, placing these stations where people really want to go,” Dawson said.
Alexander Tan, CEO of Tan International Group, which owns the Chinatown Center, said he expects the new station and MetroRapid service to boost the center’s presence.
“It will generate more customers from people who live outside of Austin,” he said. “A lot of people are coming from all over, especially on the weekends.”
The 180,000-square-foot center opened in 2006 and has 27 businesses. The center’s slogan is “your passport to Asian cuisine and shopping” because nationalities represented include Chinese, Cambodian, Korean and Vietnamese, Tan said. Anchor tenant MT Supermarket has been on North Lamar for 27 years.
“We’ve got the only [Chinatown in the Austin area], so we hope to become a hub,” Tan said.
Hinely said having this faster service will connect North Austin to downtown and bring in downtown residents who want to enjoy what North Austin has to offer.
“We think it sort of ties us in to the city,” she said. “We’re still the international stop.”
Because redevelopment is expensive, Hinely said pursuing low-entry barrier businesses—businesses with fewer costs involved in getting them started, such as food trailers or kiosks—is a less costly option to boost the business community. She said even pocket parks, trees and public art would help attract pedestrians.
“Several bus stops are in front of a strip mall, so there’s a big, huge parking lot,” she said. “There’s potential for trailers.”
One of the newest developments in North Austin is the Lotus Village Apartments located behind the Chinatown Center. The complex, which opened in June, offers 244 one- to three-bedroom apartments. Rojas said the apartments are a needed development for the area.
“Those are the kind of projects we’d like to see come online,” he said. “They’re very close to the stations, and people have the opportunity to not use their car for every trip that they need.”
Additionally, from a retail perspective, Rojas said the neighborhood could benefit from more of a mix of services, including grocery stores and family-oriented bars with outdoor seating.
He said it is up to the residents to push for development near these stations and ensure opportunities are not missed.
“It’s very incumbent on the neighborhood and especially the neighborhood contact team to stay abreast of development that’s coming through,” Rojas said.