Thoughts on Charlie’s development post

I originally started this as a comment to Charlie’s post about the Gables, but it got pretty long, so here it is.

Unlike Charlie, I tend to cringe when I hear about projects like this. I think about how cool the Cedar Door was on that lot, how crappy traffic along 1st and Lamar will be, and the worldview kinda goes downhill from there. But I also realize that those are emotional responses and that Austin is inevitably better off dealing with growth now than doing nothing out of nostalgic spite.

With that said, I think there are some serious deficiencies in this article, which is little more than a rah-rah puff piece straight from the Gables’ PR department, and with the development itself.

Read all my mouth frothing after the jump …

First off, the article positions the Gables as part of an effort “to revitalize the western end of downtown.” Perhaps this is language straight from the city, but this seems like a completely false characterisation designed to sound like some sort of take-back-the-streets urban renewal renaissance. “Downtown” Lamar hasn’t always been overpriced designer stores and groceries, but even when GM Steakhouse was surrounded by car dealers and repair shops a dozen years ago, it was already a vibrant area. Nobody needs to thank the Gables for chasing away drug lords or saving an impoverished neighborhood. It’s densification, development, whatever … but not revitalization.

Next on the cliche-o-meter, opposition is portrayed as the usual reactive neighborhoods and tree-huggers (which it is), but the overlooked opposition comes from those who want fairness and consistency in the zoning and planning processes. If the city is so keen to allow higher density in a part of downtown that’s really not downtown (DMU vs. CBD), why not change the zoning so that all developers get the same chance to upsize their projects? As it is, only the biggest developments that produce the most tax and fee revenue seem to be getting this nod. This would also allow land prices to reflect their apparent value, instead of allowing a windfall to those who buy DMU-priced land and get to develop it at CBD scale.

And while we’re talking about land, I’m pretty sure that the attractive sketch in the Statesman doesn’t reflect current topography of the site. I have heard (but not confirmed) that much of the Gables property is in the 100 year flood plain, as it sits in a large recessed bowl next to the river. And yet the Gables sketch appears to sit comfortably at 3rd St elevation. Re-routing of Sandra Muraida to Seaholm will require filling in substantial amounts of land, which also elevates and protects the area around the Gables, which essentially gives them a get-out-of-floodplain-free card. Who pays for that? I’ll bet it’s the City (i.e. you and me) that gets stuck with the bill. Throw in another height variance, and you have a pretty major giveaway for some appealing but contentious real estate that has been stewing for years.

Oh, and all the while, the “real” downtown sits way, way under its zoned capacity for development, and public transportation, current and planned, for this burgeoning area is a joke.

Honestly, the Gables does look like a pretty cool development. I don’t have a huge problem with the scale, and even with warts it’s still a damn site better than another Belterra-esque sprawling exurb. But it’s endemic of a process that is imbalanced at best, and threatens to shut out other projects that work diligently to meet the need for density within the current framework. I fear that consequently we’ll end up with a swell of poorly-planned overdevelopment to the highest bidder that will contribute to infrastructure and transportation headaches for a generation.

4 Comments so far

  1. Charlie (unregistered) on October 21st, 2005 @ 3:33 pm

    I KNEW my post would get you going! I live in this area of town and I know how unbelievable the traffic is on Lamar in that area. But, every day as I drive towards Cesar Chavez on Lamar I think what a pity we aren’t doing something better than that ugly cleaners and Goodwill building to bring more residents downtown. I wish everyone could live downtown like I do, and I wish the city would do something about the infrastructure and public transportation to make it a pleasant experience rather than the cluster-fuck it turns out to be.

    But all in all, bring on the mid-rise apartment/condo developments and I’ll be first in line to buy one. That’s because I’d rather chop off my own leg with a rusty knife than have to live further north than Windsor or further South than Barton Springs.

  2. Fletch (unregistered) on October 21st, 2005 @ 6:51 pm

    As a newcomer to Austin, I have to admit that I do not have a grasp on the ins-and-outs of the downtown development issues (like the hundred year flood plain), but I’ve been a little mystified as to the number of empty lots and underdeveloped parcels west of downtown. I won’t stick my foot in my mouth and support a new massive development, but I will say that the city should stop bickering over what to with space and agree to put something in to increase density/use/aesthetics.

  3. M1EK (unregistered) on October 23rd, 2005 @ 9:49 am

    “but even when GM Steakhouse was surrounded by car dealers and repair shops a dozen years ago, it was already a vibrant area. ”

    Uh, no. No, it wasn’t. It was an area lots of people DROVE through, but it wasn’t vibrant.

    6th/Lamar is a billion times more civilized for pedestrians now than it was when I moved to Clarksville in 1997 (and I walked through that intersection at least twice every week). And there’s a lot more to ‘do’ in the area. Before, Lamar was somewhere I walked past. Now, if I still lived there, it would be somewhere I walked _to_.

  4. M Sinclair Stevens (unregistered) on October 23rd, 2005 @ 11:30 pm

    Just to echo M1EK…back in the days of car lots this area was visually the pits and had zero pedestrian appeal. Vibrant. No way! Flat stretches of black top is urban blight. Hide those gas monsters in parking garages and give us some landscaping.

    In the 80s things started looking up near Sweetish Hill. The 90s spread the interest to Whole Foods, Book People and Waterloo. These days I have no reason to trek out to the suburbs. I’m looking forward to the completion of the bicycle bridge to make the whole shebang more accessible from my house across the river.

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