by Steven Zettner
Last year, Harrell’s hardware store closed its doors on Burnet Roadafter 40 years. Mike Harrell said he was driven out of business by rising property taxes and big box competitors. Harrell’s joined other victims of a changing economic landscape, including the Putt-Putt, Academy, and Northcross Mall. Meanwhile, car lots that pull traffic from all over Austin are remodeling and thriving.
Burnet Road should be the friendly face of Allandale. Instead, it’s a grimace of garish signs, utility poles and parking lots. Vertical Mixed Use, if done right, can revitalize Burnet Road. New developments must follow design standards that require shady sidewalks and that hide parking lots from the street. The additional residents will support neighborhood-friendly businesses that currently are struggling. The extra residential options will help to keep a lid on property values, so young families can continue to afford to live here. Higher density also means that the tax burden is distributed more broadly, which is good for both businesses and home owners. Finally, for larger properties like Northcross, VMU is an attractive alternative to a big box or other dense commercial development.
There are several problems that could come with higher density. We can fix or reduce several of them by submitting smart recommendations to the City of Austin. For instance, we should either forbid or carefully restrict how much VMU is allowed on narrow properties located right behind the homes of Allandale residents. That alone would minimize the risk of parking problems on residential streets, or taller buildings overshadowing our backyards. Where we do allow VMU, we should set density caps and open space requirements to prevent developers from doing VMU on the cheap. Along Anderson Lane and parts of Burnet, we should ask the city to roll back VMU until we know how much new traffic will be generated at Northcross.
VMU will not happen all at once. Developers have had the right to build residential on the Brentwood side of Burnet for several years and have not done so. Property values are high here, whereas mixed use development is expensive. Setting density caps and open space requirements will further slow things down. That will give the city the time it needs to adjust infrastructure to support higher density. The city will also have time to beef up public transportation, by running a MetroRapid line down Burnet. Over time, Burnet Road will shed the car lots and start to look a little bit more civilized. You can hang out at an outdoor café, have a beer, read a book, and then walk home.
A final warning: As cities age, the cost of maintaining them increases. The City of Austin sees higher density as a necessity to prevent the kind of rising taxes trap that has bled other cities. City Council has stated that no neighborhood will be able to reject VMU completely. If we do so and lose, we could end up far worse off than if we negotiate a sensible compromise.