Council Preview: Planning to Plan Transit Station Areas

Soon staff could be fleshing out a “menu” of policy options to help the city achieve its Equitable Transit Oriented Development goals

As City Council prepares to adopt an Equitable Transit Oriented Development plan, staff is trying to manage expectations – while it’s an important document, it’s not going to suddenly transform Austin’s land use regulations.

It’s best to think of the ETOD document as “a plan for how to plan in the future,” staff explained in a March 6 memo to Council. Adoption directs staff to flesh out a “menu of future (policy) options” to help Austin achieve its ETOD goals, which through encouraging both housing and workspaces along Project Connect’s rail and bus lines aim to ensure that Austin’s improved and transformed transit network is accessible and beneficial to all incomes and ethnicities.

That menu of options would include “systemwide” amendments to the Land Development Code, such as an ETOD overlay to enable a new bonus program at some station areas granting increased entitlements in exchange for affordable housing, nonprofit office space, parkland, etc. The memo stresses the “urgency” of the work to come as private buyers have snatched up land around stations or initiated projects that may not best achieve ETOD goals. “We are already behind as a community in preparing for the success of Project Connect,” the memo reads.

This tightrope walk is an attempt to tamp down some egregious anti-ETOD misinformation coming from the activists against meaningful reforms to Austin’s land use rules. No, the ETOD plan will not “designate all bus stops in the city as ETOD locations” as some have claimed. (There are around 2,400 bus stops throughout Cap Metro’s service area; there may be as many as 100 ETOD station areas.) Likewise, Council’s vote this week will not eliminate single-family zoning in Austin; new SF construction is not allowed within parts of the existing nine TODs in the Land Development Code, but that may not be required with ETOD.

Council agrees on the need to increase housing around Project Connect stations, but the ETOD plan does not establish by how much, which Council Member Chito Vela hopes to address Thursday with amendments. “If we don’t have fixed goals we’re moving toward,” Vela said at Council’s Mar. 7 work session, “then how does that guide our plan? The lack of firm goals for population densities around stations concerns me.” Staff responded that it plans to engage station-area communities more before establishing such goals.

The city, Cap Metro, and their joint venture the Austin Transit Partnership do have a timeline following ETOD plan adoption. Year One of the station-area planning work will include the North Lamar and South Congress Transit Centers (the initial termini of the central rail Orange Line), three stations (including Colony Park) on the proposed MetroRail Green Line serving the Eastern Crescent, and eight Metro Rapid bus lines in the Project Connect vision plan. Staff will also draft the ETOD overlay, which once approved by Council could be applied to any of these.

The ETOD plan includes many more tools – and thus many opportunities for staff to get distracted. CM Alison Alter drew attention to this possibility, noting that the city’s Housing and Planning Department is already understaffed. “I’m concerned with trying to do everything, we do nothing,” Alter said. Light rail stations will be a priority, Annick Beaudet – the city’s lead on Project Connect – responded. Cap Metro and ATP plan to provide major updates to light rail plans at a community event scheduled for March 21, so it’s not clear what will make the cut.

Improving land-use policies around planned transit will go a long way in improving Project Connect’s chances of substantial funding from the Federal Transit Administration; its first FTA-funding scorecard is expected in summer 2024. “Passing a plan and policy is one thing,” Beaudet explained to Council, but “showing demonstrated outcomes of those plans and policies is the most important part.” To demonstrate that progress, staff hopes to have some ETOD planning completed, or at least deep in progress, by next summer.

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