Shape-Shifting South Lamar

May 7, 2013 - 3:59 pm

With all the new cafes and condos, what about traffic?

When the Broken Spoke opened on South Lamar Boulevard over half a century ago, it was out on the dusty edge of town. Today, rather startlingly, the little country dance hall is surrounded by a big midrise complex under construction, 704 at the Spoke. All boulevards naturally evolve with their cities, and South Lamar is no exception. With a half-dozen large new projects all arising at once – around the auto shops, tattoo parlors, payday loan outlets, and taco joints – it’s one fascinating face of a changing Austin. 

Altogether, the six biggest mixed-use projects will provide nearly 2,000 new homes for people eager to live in the area, plus over 100,000 square feet (s.f.) for shops, restaurants, and small offices. For project details, see Key South Lamar Projects Sidebar. A Spyglass Realty publication about the new developments, “The Future of South Lamar,” stated what’s on many people’s minds: “With any major change, come questions. Will S. Lamar lose its charm? What will traffic be like? What is happening to our neighborhood?”

Hot PropertiesRendering of Alamo Drafthouse at Lamar Plaza

As a built environment, South Lamar is no Champs Elysees. But its chaotic streetscape is home to iconic South Austin businesses – Matt’s El Rancho, the Saxon Pub – and trendy newer eateries – Uchi, Olivia, Barley Swine. Local boutiques, yoga studios, and houseware emporiums have moved into low-rent industrial centers, and tried to spruce them up. The market is there: The Bouldin, Zilker and South Lamar neighborhoods are hot.

 “There is no doubt that the revitalization of S. Lamar and the improvement of a ‘walkability factor’ (like we see on S. Congress) will affect the value of the homes in the surrounding neighborhoods,” stated Ryan Rodenbeck of Spyglass Realty. “The Barton Hills/Zilker part of town is already one of the hottest zones in Austin.  Having an upscale entertainment district with fine dining and upscale shopping can only add to this.  This is one of the main reasons that S. Congress has affected the values of Bouldin and Travis Heights.  If the developers can keep their tenants “Weird” then we should see the same success.”

Most of the new mixed-use projects are at the 60-foot height that Commercial Services (CS) zoning has long allowed along the corridor. Many are on sites that the neighborhoods opted-in for development under alternative Vertical Mixed Use (VMU) zoning. VMU requires higher design standards, nicer streetscapes, homes (or offices) above retail, and community benefits that include affordable housing. Of course, market-rate rents on the posh new units are not cheap. At Post South Lamar, monthly rents start at $1550 for an 800 s.f. one-bedroom, rising to $2325 for the largest two-bedroom. (Older duplexes and small houses within the Zilker Neighborhood rent at similar rates.) When the Stoneridge Apartments, an older property with about 140 units affordable for low-income families, was torn down to build Post South Lamar, residents sounded an alarm. “In that case, we had to give up something, and we gave up a lot of affordable housing and families, particularly those with kids at Zilker Elementary,” said Andrew Elder, then President of the Zilker Neighborhood Association, in a Community Impact article.

Foundation Communities and Goodwill Industries are planning a four-story project, Skyway Studios, to provide about 110 homes (400 s.f. efficiencies) for “extremely and very low-income” Austinites. Most residents would have incomes below 30% of median family income, and some will have been chronically homeless; all will have access to supportive services. The project received the support of adjacent neighborhood associations, and it has applied for both City and federal funding.

Rethinking Transportation

With “compact” underway, the companion challenge is a more “connected” corridor. To help South Lamar gracefully absorb so much redevelopment, transportation improvements need to keep pace.

Fears that S. Lamar will be a constant traffic nightmare are a real concern expressed by neighborhood residents and others who regularly use the corridor for travel. Even now, rush hour on S. Lamar can be a bumper-to-bumper crawl. A Texas A&M University report notes that “South Lamar remains congested most of the day.” (It scores a high rating of 1.36 on the rush-hour Commuter Stress Index; Austin’s overall CSI is 1.38 – the eighth-worst of any city in the country.)

Who are all those drivers? Many are suburban commuters (from Oak Hill or Southwest Travis County) who choose S. Lamar instead of MoPac or IH-35. Improvements to those highways – such as the managed and toll lanes being planned for MoPac and a whole set of traffic-easing changes being developed for IH-35 – can help to woo suburban commuters off S. Lamar.

The bright side of bad traffic: It gets people to try alternatives to driving alone. As South Lamar reaches its traffic capacity, residents and employers can be part of a needed shift toward modes of travel that are better for the environment, air quality, carbon emissions, family budgets, and our health. 

MetroRapid

Good news: MetroRapid bus service is scheduled to open on South Lamar in late 2014.  It’s part of a serious, extensive Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system that will conveniently connect 76 destinations, from far North Austin (the Domain and Tech Ridge) to South Austin (Westgate Mall and Southpark Meadows).

Five MetroRapid stations will be constructed along South Lamar. (See MetroRapid System map.) Folks who live in adjacent neighborhoods will be able to walk, bike, or catch a ride to the most convenient MetroRapid station for them. As ridership demand develops, Capitol Metro can add connecting MetroBus routes to serve the surrounding neighborhoods. 

MetroRapid is likely to attract riders new to transit. The sleek, comfortable new vehicles will have speedier trip times; signal prioritization to keep service on schedule; and MetroRapid stations with shade, seating, lighting, and digital signage that announces when the next vehicle will arrive. Best of all, MetroRapid will run every 10 minutes during peak commute hours, and every 20 minutes at most other times. (See MetroRapid FAQ’s).

South Lamar Corridor Study

To improve all modes of travel, the City of Austin is embarking upon a South Lamar Corridor Study to identify both short- and long-term improvements. It will take a “Complete Streets” approach: “We want to give equal priority to pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit riders, as well as cars,” said Alan Hughes of the Austin Transportation Department. “That’s consistent with the priority programs in Imagine Austin - Compact and Connected, and Healthy Austin.” (Mobility enhancement projects also are included in the City’s Sustainability Action Agenda.) Quicker trips for drivers are important; while there isn’t room to add traffic lanes, other changes can help – such as reducing the number of driveways, as properties redevelop.

The city is seeking a consulting firm to work with staff on the study, which will kick off after October 1. Have an opinion or 10 to share?  The year-long process of developing recommendations will include a series of open houses and stakeholder meetings. (To be added to the invite list, email Alan.Hughes@AustinTexas.gov.)

Getting people safely across Lamar Boulevard itself is a priority, said Hughes, particularly at busy intersections that will have MetroRapid stations. The study also will look beyond the Boulevard, at needs such as better cross-town connections to the South Congress corridor. The City is already finishing up basic bicycle accommodations that run the length of South Lamar, but Bicycle Program Manager Annick Beaudet hopes the study will identify corridor opportunities to provide more protected bicycle lanes or dedicated “cycle tracks.” The new folks moving into apartments and condos can walk to shops and cafes right downstairs; if similar to Downtown residents, they’ll embrace walking, biking and taking transit. That creates the demand that drives public investment.

Meanwhile, Austin Transportation Department (ATD) is working on tweaks such as improved signal timing. Recently installed “Smart Signage” over South Lamar helps by providing real-time data on travel times – which can cue drivers to select alternate routes. Speeding up traffic makes good economic sense: In 2010, State Loop 343 (South Lamar, plus Cesar Chavez east to IH-35) had 114,000 annual hours of delay/mile, equating to a cost of $12.2 million, with average daily traffic of 32,900 vehicles, according to the Texas A&M report. ATD plans to monitor changes to corridor traffic levels over time. 

A city that is changing

Of course, a few suburbanites (such as “empty nesters”) could decide to shorten their commute by moving into a South Lamar condo. Times evolve, and people make fresh choices. As one resident who posted on a Zilker neighborhood listserve put it: “We live in a city, a city that is changing. I love this city. I loved it when it was small, and I love it now. I welcome more development. I helped to improve our block, and I think the apartments built on Lamar (where else would you build them?) will improve Lamar Boulevard as well. The mix of the old and new is a beautiful thing. We love that the Broken Spoke is down the street and we love the new – Barley Swine, or the new Tapas restaurant opening in Post South Lamar.”

Read an article in the New York Times about the transformation of the Broken Spoke site.

-- Katherine Gregor


South Lamar Plaza rendering:
Image credit - Michael Hsu Office of Architecture
 

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