Tom Linehan

Form-based zoning applied to Airport Boulevard was the proposal Council Member Chris Riley put forth to the group of approximately 17 people that gathered at November’s Sustainable Neighborhood’s (SN) meeting held Tuesday night, November 17 at the Christian Village Apartments Activity Room on Rockwood.  Sound like some kind of new urbanism concept? Well, it is. Form-based zoning as described to the group by Riley, relies on images and drawings to show the physical shape and proximity of buildings and open spaces rather than on building uses. Why Airport Boulevard? Most people agree it needs attention. Rather than trying to apply this new approach to zoning citywide, Council member Riley would like the city to explore the application of this approach to zoning to a manageable area. So far, no one is objecting to making Airport Boulevard the guinea pig, including the neighbors and current business owners he has talked to. There is a lot to be worked out with this urban experiment but Council Member Riley has already presented the concept to many of his peers on the Council and plans to put forth a resolution soon the City Council.

We love our central-city neighborhoods, Council Member Riley told the group at the Sustainable Neighborhoods meeting, but we are also concerned about sprawl. People today are concerned about congestion, pollution, climate change and are starting to think of ways to structure cities so they still preserve the inner city neighborhoods. The approach most people are amenable to is density along the transit corridors, leaving the inner-neighborhoods as is. This benefits all concerned. It allows for more density, makes mass transit more feasible, makes for an area with character, and creates businesses that meet people’s daily needs within walking distance.

An example of such a street in Austin today, Riley said, is Congress Ave. It has evolved over the years to a very attractive avenue. Austin, more recently, has attempted to promote development along the corridors with new design standards and VMU zoning, yet has not had much success. “What more can we do?” “Is there a better way?” Riley asks. After talking with various groups and studying the issue he is suggesting taking one corridor and facilitate the transition. The corridor that kept coming up for such a project is  Airport Blvd from Lamar to Mueller. “Airport Blvd is not very attractive and it certainly not pedestrian or bicycle friendly,” Riley said. “It offers some interesting possibilities with Highland Mall in decline and the commuter rail nearby.”

The end result is improved property values. The process for getting to the plan typically involves a charette where ideas are collected and ultimately translated into code. A significant departure from current zoning code. It would replace the current zoning for the area. Traffic flow would be a part of the development. One outcome could be side streets that run parallel to Airport for slower traffic and cyclists.

Council Member Riley is recommending the use of tax increment financing (TIF) to help fund the improvements like public space and roadway improvements. Affordable housing is part of the plan so it will require some sort of public subsidy to make that happen. The goal from all of this is to create a development that is walkable, liveable, pleasant, and affordable.

The nature of form-based zoning is it is a community-driven planning process. It requires working with neighborhoods to come up with what would make for a desirable area. Mueller is an example of what can evolve from such a process. In that instance, the City’s role was coordinating the process. Because the City owned the land, it could take the lead. For developments like Airport, it would simply serve to coordinate the process.

The Highland Mall property has huge potential. It sits on a very large tract of land. Indications are there is interest from the mall owners to get involved with the project. Other properties along Airport Blvd of interest along that tract of Airport Blvd include the Travis County Offices and ACC’s headquarters.