South Central Waterfront Plan Moves Ahead

Nov 12, 2013 - 10:38 am

Explore the South Central Waterfront, January 11, 2014 (Rescheduled from December 7, 2013 due to winter weather)

Curious about the South Central Waterfront area that City Council has newly designated for a forward-thinking urban design plan? Come along on a lively walking tour Saturday,  December 7, 10 am to noon, accompanied by knowledgeable guides and live music. (Get event details here). All cityshapers invited!

This August, City Council passed a resolution initiating a comprehensive plan for the 97-acre area now known as the South Central Waterfront. (See map.)  In it, Council referenced a 2013 analysis which showed that zoning alone is not adequate to fulfill the promise of the area along Austin’s beloved river through Downtown. An integrated urban design plan is needed to help it redevelop in ways that optimize community benefits – including opening up the waterfront’s natural assets and beauty for everyone’s enjoyment.

In the face of growing redevelopment interest and pressures, Council directed the City Manager to develop a vision and to deliver back a comprehensive small-area plan by December 2014. It calls for integrating an economic and market analysis, district-wide management, green infrastructure, and transportation.

Fresh Energy for The Waterfront

The river that runs through Austin and its Downtown has long been one of Austin’s most beloved features. Over the past two years, two fresh planning efforts have focused attention on the South Shore area’s tremendous opportunities. They built on long-established community goals, as well as new opportunities for public and expert professional input, analysis, and recommendations. Both were led by the Urban Design Division, with the support of the Waterfront Planning Advisory Board.

The first brought in national design experts, sponsored by the American Institute of Architects, serving on a Sustainable Design Assessment Team .  Existing problems identified in the SDAT analysis included:

  • Inadequate public access to the waterfront
  • Limited public green space along the shoreline
  • Large, unattractive, outdated surface parking lots and other auto-oriented uses
  • Huge “superblocks” that impede pedestrian access to the waterfront
  • Outdated and inadequate water quality protections
  • Poor mobility connections 

The SDAT also provided recommendations on how the area could potentially redevelop to achieve:

  • Expanded and enhanced public space along the lakeshore
  • High-quality pedestrian connections to the shore and throughout the district
  • More sustainable, attractive and harmonious built environment

In response to these design issues and opportunities, the South Central Waterfront Area Plan will establish a long-term vision for the area, urban design standards based on community goals, and an implementation action plan that tackles the negatives and accentuates the area’s positives.

The second effort was part of the regional Sustainable Places Project (SPP).  Map of South Central Waterfront A key SPP initiative has been the development of a computer-based analytic tool, known as Envision Tomorrow Plus, to assess and compare the livability impacts of redevelopment scenarios.  The South Shore Central sub-district was used as a demonstration site to develop, test, and calibrate the Envision Tomorrow Plus tool.

Three redevelopment scenarios were modeled; the results showed how differently the area could evolve in the future -- comparing a “business as usual” outcome (redevelopment occurring with no guidance other than current zoning regulations) with two alternate approaches, the SDAT recommendations and a proposal by the UT School of Architecture/Texas Futures Lab that was based on SDAT principles and incorporated rail transit. 

In May, SPP consultant John Fregonese gave a community talk that presented contrasting outcomes across over 30 performance indicators. Those included: Return on investment, financial feasibility, municipal budget impacts, water quality, public open space, and walkability. Use of the analytic tool demonstrated that current regulations will not guarantee or achieve superior waterfront access, urban design, water quality, or green space. By contrast, the alternative scenarios – which require a proactive, planned approach – doubled the amount of public open green space, while generating revenues to fund community benefits. (See the Scenario Planning Report: Austin South Shore Central.) 

The findings of the Envision Tomorrow Plus tool informed the City Council decision to call for a proactive master plan to guide the area’s redevelopment.

Respecting Nature & History

The 1985 Town Lake Corridor Study established broad principles and goals for future public and private development along and near the lake. It led to the 1986 Waterfront Overlay ordinance, which remains in effect today. The 1985 study also called for comprehensive long-range planning (which did not follow at that time) to ensure that development would occur in harmony with the natural environment of the waterfront. Key goals cited were enhanced public access and excellence in urban design – both still paramount today.

The new South Central Waterfront Area Plan will build upon longstanding community goals defined in the 1985 Town Lake Corridor Study, as did the SDAT and Sustainable Places Project efforts. The Waterfront Planning Advisory Board and all Austinites will have numerous opportunities to help shape the plan. The planning area includes tracts all the way south to Riverside Drive and Barton Springs Road, as well as land directly along the waterfront itself.

This month’s walking tour kicks off a series of community events, to help prepare the Austin community to make the most of the planning process.  To get news and invites to future events, sign up for e-mail notifications at