Experts say ‘mini cities’ in Austin could ease affordability issues

There’s a lot to love in Austin – the nightlife, the food, the Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail, and so on. But there are two important things we like to hate about our city: increasingly congested traffic and increasingly unaffordable housing.

A new report suggests that Austin could solve both of these problems by using more than 1,300 acres for mini-cities within the larger city.

In a report, experts from the Urban Land Institute identified 1,350 acres in Austin that could fit into the city’s current zoning framework for Transit-Oriented Development (TOD). A TOD is anchored by a transit station and provides a mix of office, residential, retail, entertainment and other spaces in a compact walk-in and drivable area.

The report says the 1,350 acres are made up of packages located within a quarter of a mile of existing MetroRail commuter tracks and existing high-frequency bus routes. Additionally, an additional 400 acres along two proposed new MetroRail lines would be ripe for TOD status, according to the report.

An interactive map that was created with the report shows that there are many of these TOD-enabled packages:

  • Along I-35 in South Austin, between West Dittmar Road and West Slaughter Lane.

  • Located along State Highway 71 East near US Highway 183 East, west of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

  • Located along North Lamar Boulevard near US Highway 183 West.

Proponents of TODs tout their ability to increase the number of public transport drivers, reduce dependency on cars, encourage affordable housing, and promote responsible land use. Unlike most types of zoning, zoning these parcels combines housing and transit options, which the report says is key to improving affordability.

“Affordable housing in Austin is scarce and shrinking. Austin is in a real estate crisis with a demand for affordable real estate that far exceeds the supply of units that are affordable for low and middle income households, ”the report said.

The ULI experts recommend the introduction of TODs as a regional growth strategy for the greater Austin area.

“Regional growth in central Texas is characterized by extensive development, leading to longer commutes, rising housing costs and the decline of low-cost housing to the borders of the region,” the report said. “TOD is a template for more sustainable regional growth through compact development, improved transit access and a reduction in vehicle journeys and greenhouse gas emissions.”

In 2005, the city of Austin added TOD capabilities to its zoning structure in anticipation of the MetroRail Red Line. Launched in 2010, the 32-mile nine-station line connects downtown Austin and Leander. However, according to the report, most of the Austin zone code is still promoting car-independent land use.

So far, the city of Austin has approved nine TOD districts, the report said. But only three of them (connected to MetroRail’s Crestview, MLK Jr., and Plaza Saltillo stations) have gone through both stages of the TOD planning process.

In 2005, the Williamson County suburb of Leander created a TOD district along the MetroRail Red Line.

The district includes a 115-acre project called Northline, highlighted by 2,300 apartments and townhouses, as well as 700,000 square feet of office space, 300,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, and two hotels. Construction work on Northline began earlier this year. The project, dubbed Leander’s “new inner city”, is expected to be completed over a period of 10 to 15 years.

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