6. Car-oriented Austin is Trying out Low-rise Transit Oriented Development

MetroRail Crestview stop, Austin Texas

Very much a product of post-Word War II American planning principles that prioritized the car, Austin is trying to reorient living and commuting patterns through its 2005 Transit Oriented Development (TOD) ordinance. It starts with an asset not all cities have: an abundance of rail lines running through Central Texas that advocates think could be made available for passenger rail service since the rights-of-way are already in place. But, of course, freight and passenger rail have had fraught relationships wherever they meet, and Union Pacific last year ominously pulled out of negotiations for use of its track alongside Interstate 35.

In a way, the very existence of a TOD ordinance in Austin is miraculous. Light-rail opponents had successfully fought a 2000 public transportation referendum with the slogan: “Rail: Costs Too Much, Does Too Little.” And even though everyone understands that if TOD is to work you need to get lots of people living and working near train stations (mass transit’s mass needs to be close to its transit), Austin activists resist real density. Crestview development, built on land reclaimed from the Huntsman Chemical Research Facility, is distinctly low rise, with about 500 single-family homes, 600 apartments, and 150,000 square feet of retail & office space. Now, says the New York Times, Austin’s most ambitious TOD development, Plaza Satillo, is also the most contentious. A local developer, the Endeavor Real Estate Group, has teamed with Capital Metro to convert an 11-acre rail yard to a TOD of 800 apartments, 120K square feet of office space, and 110K square feet of retail and restaurants. Endeavor will pay about $200 million for a 99-year lease. The current fight is over size: will Endeavor be allowed to build a 125-foot office building, more than double the neighborhood’s current prescribed height?