Austin’s Mueller Airport sat empty after its decommission and it became a nightmare of wasted space, much like the underutilized Highland Mall. Now they are on route to become a walkable, and transit-oriented mixed use development. This project, among others like the Domain, and the Triangle, allow for easy mobility and very inviting and friendly centers. Walkable Centers along with a walkable streetscape drive up the value and make transit significantly easier to manage, according to Joe Urban:
Austin, Texas is home to a growing list of high-quality urban infill projects, from small examples like Saltillo Lofts to large-scale redevelopments like the Mueller Airport project. Until now, however, there were no examples of how to redevelop aging automobile-oriented commercial corridors. The Airport Boulevard project seeks to change that.
In a complex public/private partnership, the city of Austin is working with Fort Worth-based Gateway Planning Group to create a master plan and implementation program for redevelopment of the corridor, including a large underutilized mall and various smaller sized-sites along a three-mile stretch of Airport Boulevard. The roadway was originally developed in the years following World War II in classic automobile-oriented, single-use fashion. Although the corridor does contain some long-time and beloved businesses, much of the suburban-style pad site development is dated and now the city and neighborhoods want a more walkable, urban environment. At the core of the strategy will be a form-based code acting as a physical guide for the future built form of development along the corridor to create a coordinated development context.
According to Scott Polikov, president of Gateway Planning Group, the core of the initiative is to leverage city, county, community college and private investment in a way that benefits all properties along the corridor. The Airport Boulevard strategy goes above and beyond and uses an implementation plan that ties finances together in a unique manner. “Everyone is coordinated,” explains Polikov, “allowing large and small property owners to act as if a single entity controlled the entire corridor.”
“There was no way to do redevelopment on a corridor-wide basis [without this approach],” explains Austin city councilmember Chris Riley, the key political proponent of the Airport Boulevard effort. Effectively, the city and county will invest in infrastructure upfront in return for higher tax base later, while RedLeaf Properties, the private developer that acquired the mall site, intends to invest in additional stormwater detention benefitting the entire corridor, not just the mall site. In return, RedLeaf could receive fiscal reimbursements from a tax increment financing (TIF) district, if created by the city and county. This will result in property owners of smaller parcels along the corridor benefiting from not having to provide onsite detention, thus enabling significant development intensification on their sites, which will also be upzoned under the form-based code. Effectively, the plan seeks to make all disparate ownership entities along the corridor act together similar to that of a master planned community.
The underutilized mall site, known as Highland Mall, will be redeveloped by RedLeaf in partnership with Austin Community College, the latter of which will develop its central campus there. The Austin Community College plans to utilize about half of the 80-acre site, including most of the mall buildings, for use as classrooms, administrative offices, as well as a conference center, wellness center and professional development center. Starting in 2014, ACC will open administrative offices in the former Dillards store, with other sections of the mall to follow. The surrounding site, consisting mostly of surface parking, will be developed by RedLeaf or sold as separate parcels to other developers. The concept is to develop 2 million square feet of residential and commercial uses in primarily a four-story format, following the form-based code standards. A major emphasis will be on a high-quality streetscape and pedestrian connection across Airport Boulevard to the Highland Mall MetroRail station, a stop on the recently-opened Capital Metro rail transit line. Supported by its designers McCann Adams, RedLeaf and ACC have agreed to allow the Gateway Planning-led rezoning to include the mall site for continuity along with the remaining three-mile corridor form-based coding.
Citing the importance of the use of a form-based code as a tool for redevelopment in the corridor, Polikov’s team will use it as a means to tie together disparate physical parts of the corridor, including private development frontages and the public realm of Airport Boulevard itself, in to a pedestrian-friendly cohesive whole that increases the value of the entire three-mile corridor. The form-based code will establish building height, density and design, as well as streetscape and pedestrian frontages, providing the developer with more certainty for their project and others along the corridor.
Noting how past corridor redevelopment efforts didn’t deal well with the actual appearance of building frontages or transitions to the existing neighborhood, councilmember Riley emphasizes the importance of using a form-based code versus use-based zoning for redevelopment. Riley believes it is a promising alternative and “a way to work with the community for a positive redevelopment vision.” Not just focusing on mixed-use along, it will bring predictability where all parties know what is expected, making the corridor easier to develop. In fact, he frequently refers to the overall effort as the “form-based code plan,” not the Airport Boulevard plan. Polikov reinforces that this approach creates what he calls “adjacency predictability” from property to property, the key to underwriting in a multi-ownership environment.