Public and private entities in Austin work to urbanize Austin — with and without each other.
In the heart of Texas, citizens of our booming capital city cannot agree on how to grow. Disputes over how to organize Austin’s population have created a vigilante approach to urban development, and at the core of these disputes lie antiquated development standards. Proposed in 2012, CodeNEXT comprehensively addressed higher density development. A NIMBY lawsuit halted its adoption, and in 2022 the Texas Supreme Court upheld the ruling. Thus, the original 1984 Land Development Code remains in place nearly 40 years later, subjecting current development in Austin to standards written for a city that largely no longer exists. As a result, higher land entitlements — namely increased height and density — are determined on a project-by-project basis and will be for the foreseeable future for planned unit developments (PUDs) and high-rises downtown seeking additional height beyond a 25:1 floor area ratio (FAR). This leaves Austin’s City Council to spend unnecessary time reviewing zoning and requests for higher entitlements when it could, instead, be focusing on how to manage Austin’s burgeoning growth.
In a recent City Council election, a candidate campaigned on a platform of unique zoning per district to avoid legal conflicts around adopting a new city-wide land use code. Zoning by district not only would be a logistical nightmare for urban designers and architects, it would cause Austin’s corridors to become visually chaotic. Corridors like South Lamar Boulevard have grown taller and denser quickly, yielding dark tunnels without adequate relief provided through open space, setbacks, or greenspace — all the result of piecemeal densification instead of a codified, holistic approach to growth management. The ongoing disputes around the latest Zilker Park Master Plan may be indicative of a need for more open space in general, but instead Austinites have placed this onerous demand on a single park.
Although Austin lacks an appropriate comprehensive land use code update, the Urban Design Guidelines were created for the public spaces between buildings. In 2000, Austin City Council adopted the Downtown Austin Design Guidelines. These guidelines were updated in 2008 and renamed the Urban Design Guidelines for Austin, with the hope that they could eventually be applied to other areas with density, like PUDs or Transit-Oriented Developments (TODs), to create better walkability and usability. “Good urban design should not be limited to the Central Business District,” stated the Design Commission in its recommendation to City Council. “Safety, walkability, and active streetscapes should be a shared pedestrian experience throughout the growing urban fabric of Austin.” A process for revision of the guidelines went to City Council three times before being approved in 2021; the most recent revision began in 2022.
A draft of the guidelines will go out for public comment this summer, then to staff, and then to City Council for adoption by the end of 2023 or early 2024. Former Design Commission Chair David Carroll oversees a working group comprised of five design commissioners — including Carroll, Evan Taniguchi, Aan Coleman, Josue Meiners, and myself — who each lead volunteers from the public to create more activated and better considered public spaces downtown. The existing categories of Public Spaces, Streetscape, Buildings, and Infrastructure will receive updates, and Urban Fabric will become a new category, in an attempt to civilize our shared spaces. But what exactly is “urban fabric”?
The current understanding defined by our working group is as follows: “Urban Fabric connects people through space and time to celebrate the specific context of the surrounding natural and built environments.” Other cities’ urban guidelines state, ”Urban Fabric connects the scale of human interactions.” Cities, since the origin of civilization, provide the setting for exchange; cities are the physical embodiment of human interaction. Our departure from this definition is to account for local character (even as Austin seeks to define what that is) drawing upon Eliel Saarinen’s tenet: “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” As an example, projects along Fifth Street’s Mexican American Heritage Corridor could integrate Mexican American-themed art along the public right of way to reference the broader context of the district and reinforce its existing identity.
Ongoing concerns of the Design Commission, as well as of the public, center on the lack of activated streetscapes in Austin — meaning that, in effect, our public places have become restrictive and are no longer conducive to human exchange. Some feel that downtown only belongs to the elite few who live and work there, because inactive ground floors and public spaces in front of buildings remove the ability for the public to interact. Downtown commands the highest residential and commercial rents in the state, and currently only one complex is designated as “Affordable.” The Rainey Street District has on-site affordable housing in some new projects, but the units are not fully occupied (which should be the subject of an inquiry). Downtown belongs and should be accessible to everyone. By creating guidelines that support interaction between diverse groups of people, cultures, and environments across a variety of scales, we believe we can provide a thought-provoking toolkit for designers and building owners that generates unique solutions for each development site.
The Urban Design Guidelines for Austin currently apply only to downtown projects that seek benefits from the Downtown Density Bonus Program. In exchange for increased height and density, additional design elements for the enjoyment and use of the public should be on the ground floor of buildings, although only substantial compliance is required. Despite this voluntary code, downtown may have some of the most hostile urban fabric in Austin — but some private developers and architects are working to change that.
Without a city-commissioned district plan — and of their own volition to improve the urban fabric — Stream Realty Partners, which owns 40 properties along East Sixth Street, commissioned local architecture firm Clayton Korte to conceive a multiblock revitalization of East Sixth between Interstate 35 and Congress Avenue. Stream Vice President Caitlyn Ryan was struck by the stark vacancy rates seen in the famous bar and music district over the last 10 years, which has led to increases in violent crime, theft, and vandalism. Stream felt the jewel of downtown had become unsafe and was no longer a home for nostalgic bars. The East Sixth Street Corridor now stands in stark contrast to its neighbors like the Innovation District to the north, the condo and hotel boom on Rainey Street to the south, the adjacent convention center, and the continued growth within the central business district in general.
With only a few restaurants remaining after years of neglect, Stream created a rescue plan to protect and enhance their East Sixth Street properties. The development team hopes to unify and update the district so that programming extends to 18 hours of the day, beyond limited nightlife hours. Working through the complicated and unpredictable political approval process while requiring financing to move forward is a challenging chicken-and-egg game for any developer. Clayton Korte was tasked with designing the space around the buildings, testing programs, presenting the projects to various commissions, communicating potential feasibility with various stakeholders, and running test fits for tenants.
“The studies along the East Sixth [Street] Corridor describe landmark protections, what is lost, and what is developable,” explains project architect Paul Clayton, AIA. “Renderings show building character and design for marketing purposes, and massing models are used for conversation with different commissions and governing bodies to determine what is acceptable.” He notes that it’s incredibly difficult to not design buildings, because it’s what people want to see. “It’s a curiosity, he says. “They ask, ‘What does it look like?’ Really, what they want to know is the impact on historical buildings.” The elements that comprise it — such as materials, scale, and window proportion — all have implications on the Sixth Street district experience.
Architect Emily Little, FAIA, of Clayton Korte comments, “The project is based on adaptive reuse of existing structures and new development, rather than pure historic preservation.” The team also notes that Preservation Austin and the Historic Landmark Commission are seen as collaborators and protectors of what is arguably the last historic commercial district in Austin. “We are all motivated by the next commission to do something interesting [and] progressive…,” says Clayton. “In historic districts, maybe the most appropriate [approach] is to have timeless design that creates a visual backdrop. People love New York City, and the buildings that create it were constructed decades ago.”
The current 12-foot rights of way bordering the historic building fronts on East Sixth Street do not have adequate space for public realm design interventions. As a result, two lanes of existing parking on either side of the street will be reallocated to the sidewalk, yielding 25 feet for landscaping and art on each side of the street. Brian Ott of Nudge Design is consulting on the landscape. The goal is to emphasize a district feeling that supports a unique and dynamic sense of place. Stream is discussing activations that would require ongoing management, such as adaptive installations that change with each season. “We want to make art that you can see from planes in the landing process,” says Ryan. “Generally, developers could consider their impact on both the streetscape and skyline in greater detail.”
Although the city owns many public spaces and venues, none are allocated for free use by small local artists. One simple and cost-effective intervention could include the integration of electrical outlets into rights of way for use in performances by local artists, without the cost associated with venue rentals. This would also align with the programming discussed by the Safer Sixth Street Initiative, which the City Council passed in July 2021 to add positive programing and reduce violent crime on Sixth Street. Some measures within this initiative include undertaking a comprehensive lighting survey, creating a pilot annual entertainment permit with safety plans for places of assembly, and proposing a pilot program to provide loans or incentives to historic buildings along Sixth Street for kitchen additions that would help increase daytime usage.
Privately funding a multiblock revitalization is arguably the most economical and speedy path to achieving a district update, considering the dearth of public funding allocated to these kinds of initiatives. For example, the city of Austin established the East Sixth Street Public Improvement District (PID) in 2004, which has been reauthorized every five years since. Taxing 10 cents on every $100 of building value in the district, the 2023 budget totals only $82,028.97, and 40 percent of it was allocated to economic development. The funds available through the existing PID are clearly insufficient for any real improvement projects.
In contrast, the Second Street Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) — which spans six blocks between San Antonio Street and Colorado Street to the west and east, and Third Street and Cesar Chavez Street to the north and south — provided a means for the urban fabric to be improved first, thereby attracting quality tenants and strong leases for the developers to utilize financing from the open market. While an expeditious and strong solution, a critique of the Second Street TIRZ could be that only one historic building was preserved: the J.P. Schneider Store. Historic protection at the state level mandated that the 1873 structure be preserved; as a result, the Austin Convention Center and the headquarters of Silicon Labs now directly abut the historic building.
Moving forward, civility in the urban fabric could enhance Austin’s core with just a few simple measures. The city of Austin has penned many strategic plans — significant because they represent a collaboration between city staff and City Council — but a few steps have been missing for these ideas to be realized. The city of Austin’s Planning Department could create more specific district plans with higher embedded entitlements that align with these strategic plans. District plans could provide private developers with clear actions to improve under-utilized areas in a cohesive manner, and unlocking only a few of these district plans at a time could direct growth in a synergistic way that does not require taxpayers to subsidize the costs.
Design Commission Vice Chair Josue Meiners, who also serves as vice president of the Highland Neighborhood Association, notes the need for the Urban Design Guidelines to extend beyond downtown into transit-oriented developments and higher density corridors. Says Meiners: “Conflict in a transitioning TOD is about single-family owners with car-centric lifestyles repeatedly squandering the goals of transit-oriented development. For people like me who are transit-dependent, our livelihood is relegated to a narrow portion of this city where we can conveniently access transportation to get to work, safely walk to amenities, or even build equity as homeowners. Expanding standards throughout the city, like those outlined in the Urban Design Guidelines, would promote shared values, reduce friction with perceived entitlements, and enhance the experiences of those that live, work, and visit Austin beyond the periphery of downtown.”
Drenner Group’s Director of Land Use and Entitlements, Leah Bojo, notes that north of downtown, new construction projects are providing positive public spaces. “The University Neighborhood Overlay has managed to successfully permit transit-supportive, high-rise residential projects with required step backs, streetscapes, and minimal above-ground parking,” says Bojo. “This is one of the most vibrant parts of Austin. Why can’t we do this in more of the city?”
Civility in architecture sets the scene for how we enjoy our space and time together. Former Design Commissioner and landscape architect Aan Coleman notes that as a city, “Austin gets in its own way to make development prescriptive and as a result, ‘sameness’ in some areas has occurred. The nature and character of the original hippy/bohemian fabric that Austin is known for has all but disappeared.” No doubt standardizing a design or code process for all situations adds time for adoption, and implementation will not be equal in all situations. In reviewing her team’s work on the East Sixth Street Corridor, Emily Little notes: “The Historic Landmark Commission bases their ruling on the standards set by the Secretary of the Interior, but there are few hard and fast rules for historic work. I hope our project sets a precedent for how to apply non-specific standards — that it sets the example of good compromise.” Austin is now the 10th largest city in the United States, and many healthy compromises over our land use will be required as our urban core, corridors, and new development nodes mature from our suburban roots into an urban Austin that belongs to, and is accessible for, everyone.
Jen Weaver serves as chair of Austin’s Design Commission and as a downtown commissioner. The opinions expressed in this article are not opinions or reflections of the city of Austin, the Design Commission or Downtown Commission, the Housing and Planning Department, any City Council office, or any staff liaison. The opinions expressed belong only to the author. Please reach out to email@example.com to review a draft of the new Urban Design Guidelines, out for public comment in summer 2023.
Jen Weaver is a registered architect, registered interior designer, and realtor in the state of Texas. She developed Capitol Quarters, the first no parking multifamily building in Austin.