Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Interview: Molly Scarbrough

Molly Scarbrough a senior planner with the city's Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department, heading up the North Burnet/Gateway plan.

Contact Molly at:
(512) 974-3515

What is the North Burnet Gateway redevelopment in short?

A plan to redevelop a lot of the existing light industrial warehouse and retail uses in the area now into a more vibrant mixed-use neighborhood. The plan really seems to accommodate a lot more residents in the area and particularly because our region is expected to double in population in the next twenty years. This plan hopes to capture, or at least accommodate, that growth in a much more urban, mixed-use fashion.

Why here and why now?
Why now, we’re expecting pop to double in twenty years, so the city is faced with that in general and why here because it’s an area that’s served by potentially two future passenger rail lines the first being the capital metro rail line, which will open in 2008, a commuter rail from Leander to downtown and then potentially also an Austin San Antonio commuter rail. Now that rail isn’t funded yet but a lot of people are talking about planning for it in the future. This area is an area where those two rail lines come into pretty close proximity, half a mile to a mile of one another, and there are really only two other areas of Austin where that happens and that is near downtown where the rail line goes to Seaholm, and the rail line goes to the convention center. And the other is at the Robbinson ranch area. So it’s a good place to capitalize on that, and the potential circulator transit which sort of spurs of that which capital metro will use to get people to and from he stations. Not only will we have the rail lines we’ll also have rapid bus lines running through the area.

Secondly it currently has no single-family residence in it, it’s a huge area the size of downtown Austin, the state office complex and UT combined. It’s a pretty huge area that doesn’t accommodate almost any resident at all, a few apartment complexes.

Are the people living in these dense housing developments likely to be single people and retiring couples?
Honestly at first that would probably be true just because of the market and it’s just a new type of development in this area. I believe that over time that’s going to change. The reason I saw “at first it’s going to be like that” is because it’s part of the Austin mentality that if you have a family with children, you want a single family house, I think that mentality is going to take a while to shift. So I don’t think it’s that it can’t be accommodated, I don’t know that the market is there now, however our plan encourages and I think there are several places for town homes, residential uses, things that are a little more dense. Mixed use but maybe a little more family oriented. As Austin grows and people begin thinking about Austin in a more urban fashion I think the demand for that kind of housing is going to increase.

UT stand out from the rest of the development like an island. What will become of this land?
So UT owns the main Pickle research campus, the shops at arbor walk and they also own this western tract. That’s mostly vacant right now, the MCC building is there.

We’ve had a lot of discussions with UT through this plan, asking them what they want to do with that land, and they really don’t know. Because they don’t know and don’t’ have a real solid plan for the area at this time they don’t want to commit to any plans through our planning process. What we were able to uncover in the planning process is that most likely in the future the main pickle campus will remain for UT purposes. That seems pretty set, nothing is set in stone, but it seems pretty certain that this area will not be opened up for private development. Obviously the shops at arbor walk have opened for private dev and the western tract was one of those that they didn’t really have plans for yet and they were hesitant to commit it to our planning process and they wanted to make it clear that they don’t have any plans to redevelop it at this time, but it seems a little more likely that that’s in the realm of possibility for that. Before they make any plans it has to go through their board of regents, facilities management team, etc. etc. So there’s no plans for that now, but just like they sold off the shops at Arbor Walk it has potential to do that, so we wanted ot have a plan in place in case they did. UT had a master plan made a few years ago and it was never adopted, it was really an exciting plan because it was a much more urban environment.

Even with these rail lines going through there’s still not a direct connection between this campus and the other. Although a walk from the rail station to the edge of the pickle campus will would be about 15 minutes, there will be buses that connect that station to the campus and that will connect the two campuses.

How has the Domain project influenced the North Burnet/Gateway project?
For us the Domain has been a nice market reality, because they are seeing demands for office, for high-rise residential, for commercial retail. It’s kind of nice because a lot of times we plan things and hope we’re planning it right. The Domain case is interesting because they came in and they had to jump through a lot of hoops to do the kind of development that they’re doing, the zoning system isn’t set up for that. They were able to do it because they have a really large piece of land, and well established developers that know the system in and out and have been able to finagle their way through our system, which we haven’t made it easy for them even though we as a community are supporting this kind of development it’s just that our rules and regulations were developed in the past without this in mind.

What we’re trying to do is create the type of regulatory environments to facilitate that type of development without everyone jumping through the hoops so that you get smaller developers and property owners who an do this kind of development that can do it without having to hire a law firm just to get through the zoning system.

What reaction are you hearing from the community?
We’re getting a wide range of reaction, some people very supportive because they support the idea of accommodating growth, recognizing that the city can’t keep sprawling out and that we need to start densifying in areas and this is a good place to do it. Because there are no single family residences and some natural and unnatural buffers around the area created by the highways and the creeks other commercial industrial projects. A lot of people say ‘you know we’ve got to accommodate growth’, this is a good place to do it without disrupting single-family residential neighborhoods. We get a lot of support for that, then we have some people concerned about traffic, we have some existing business owners in the area worried what zoning changes will mean to them, regardless of zoning changes the city has an overall non-conforming use policy which means that if you have existing biz and you stay in same building footprint and don’t make any major changes you can stay in the same business from here on out no matter how zoning changes. No one is getting pushed out. Really effects redevelopment as things change over time.

A lot of people excited about creating a neighborhood in this area because it really not a neighborhood now, parks and open space, industrial land that has been largely ignored the environment and trying to uncover it again. It’s not going to go back to a completely natural state, that’s not the point of this plan, but in bringing in urban development and new business parks and open space are going to be key.

Can you explain the idea of the Gateway shopping center build-out your consultants developed?
Consultants did a really interesting study, the study showed that you could leave the existing buildings where they are, take the surface parking and replace it with structured parking garages at key locations, you could infill development and it’s got a pretty good potential street network already built in. You could infill residential development here and then leave the existing buildings where they are. Then over time as the life of the buildings expires after ten or fifteen years, development can slowly grow higher.

It was an interesting study because a lot of people see this area and they say ;oh but it’s already built out’ but the fact is Home Depot has moved across MoPac, DSW has moved across MoPac, whole foods is going to move across MoPac. By no means is Gateway in a decline, I don’t want to imply tat at all, but the fact is that things change over time and people are appealed by the new domain development, and shops find it more appealing too. So it amy be that the owners of Gateway say “hey, how can we do this” and there a way to do it without reconstructing, extensively, what’s there already.

What would you like people to know about the North/Burnet Gateway plan?
What people are concerned about, and I think it might be over-inflated concern, is traffic, you will always hear that at planning meetings. Because the thought of bringing potentially 80,000 new residents in this area in 30 years. The key here is a) in 30 years and b) is the regulatory framework that we’re creating could accommodate that, it doesn’t mean that every building is going to be twenty stories most likely it’s not. You see downtown where there is no height limit right now and you see a total mix of heights of buildings and that’s just how things evolve over time.

I don’t want people to be too scared by that number but the other thing is that the traffic, yes there will be more people here they’ll also have much greater access to transit, they’ll be able to walk to places instead of getting in their car instead of everyone funneling into the street. There will be some attraction for people to come to this area, but I don’t know if it’s going to be that much greater than what is already here. People are already coming to gateway shopping center, they’re already coming to the Domain.

We’re not proposing Disney world here, people will be attracted to live and work in this area, but it’s not going to be every development as a huge retail destination. Yes some people will want to drive to the Domain and they’ll want to drive to work, but is there are a reason for them to drive through these neighborhoods to get somewhere else: probably not. So there will be a little increase in traffic, like on Duval and Braker, but I don’t anticipate a whole 80,000 people are going to flood the residential neighborhood. The numbers seem scary but if you think about traffic patterns people trying to get from one destination to another, I don’t anticipate that throughway (in neighborhoods) as much as people fear.