Urban Planning in Austin

Mayor Wynn: I'm going to take the lead from my friend, Larry Speck, and just walk around a little bit so I can see the slides. I am really pleased to be in San Antonio; love the city and love not being in Austin for a weekend. Some of you may know that the official municipal slogan for the City of Austin is “Keep Austin Weird”. I was in San Antonio a couple of years ago and in front of about 500 people, San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger gave me a t-shirt that said, “Keep the Weird in Austin”. Phil's a funny guy.

This is an honor for me, but I'm a little intimidated to do it. I feel sort of like Elizabeth Taylor's seventh husband on their wedding night. I apologize in advance, I'm going to try to blast through about 30 slides and summarize three major urban planning initiatives that I've been blamed for.

The first is our redevelopment of the old Robert Mueller Airport. The land is 750 acres, two miles from UT, three miles from the CBD, surrounded by mature, fully developed neighborhoods and represented a remarkable opportunity. Ten years ago we built the new Bergstrom International Airport on the 4,000-acre Bergstrom Air Force field, a whopping six miles from downtown.

As late as 2000, when I was first elected, they were still debating about whether or not we should keep Mueller open as a secondary airport, even perhaps general aviation. That year I was able to help convince a council of colleagues to hire a distinguished urban planning group called Roma out of San Francisco to help us come up with what we ultimately approved the next year. This is the master plan, a very dense, mixed-use transit-oriented development with about 4 million square feet of commercial space, which would equate to about 10,000 employees on site, and therefore, about 4,600 residential units of all shapes and sizes and price points that would equate to about 10,000 residents. Plus, 150 acres of park land, lakes, hike and bike trails, civic uses rounded out this really aggressive and progressive plan. In 2001 we formally adopted the master plan, essentially the zoning in the master plan to make all that happen.

One of my favorite stories comes from my very first city council meeting in June of 2000 where one of the 150 items on the agenda that day was to award a demolition contract of $500,000 to demolish the four airport hangars you see there on the left. Well, those hangars are in a spot where likely the first two or three, maybe four phases wouldn't even get to. That site wouldn't be ready for development for five, eight, perhaps ten years. So I suggested to the council in my very first meeting to delay spending the $500,000 for six weeks. I ended up negotiating a lease with a non-profit group called the Austin Film Society for one dollar a year. So we didn't spend $500,000; instead we got one dollar a year.

Since then, $650 million’s worth of film has been shot inside those hangars, a total economic impact of about $3 billion. In November of 2006 I asked the voters and they approved about $5 million in bonds to allow us to invest in those hangars. We are now significantly upgrading them with energy efficient air conditioning, all kind of stuff.

In 2003 I was elected Mayor. We had the existing master plan in place. It included 4 million square feet of commercial space, about a million of it designated as a corporate office campus for a major employer. At the same time, the Seton family hospitals were operating the relatively small Austin Children's Hospital within the public Brackenridge Hospital near downtown. They had just purchased 50 acres of land up in Williamson County, just inside the city, on which to build a new state-of-the-art children's hospital. I really wanted that in the center of town near all of our other potential medical infrastructures. So we quickly changed the master plan - which I thought we couldn't do - virtually overnight and re-designated the corporate campus for medical purposes. And last year I helped cut the ribbon on a $300 million state-of-the-art, LEED-certified children's hospital, just a staggering asset right in the middle of the Mueller development.

Here's some of the housing from Phase I. Again, the housing plan was for 4,600 units, everything from $120,000 to over a million dollars, every product, shape, size, configuration, and 25 percent of which is permanently affordable to folks earning less than 80 percent of median family income. We do this via land trust. We actually own the land publicly, underneath 25 percent of the homes. They're interspersed throughout the development and indistinguishable from the market-priced housing. We had 354 homes on Phase I. We had 4,200 full price offers, a 12:1 ratio. We just kicked off Phases II and III.

Now, let's talk about the block-headed urban planning that occurred long before my tenure in office, thank you very much. In the late 1960s, early 1970s, UT's student population was exploding. A 14-story building gets built in west campus and, yes, it's ugly as hell. The body politic in Austin howl and a reactionary, block-headed city council passed a moratorium and a height limitation placed over all of west campus. Two perfectly predictable things happened. Number one, 8,700 poorly planned student apartments get constructed on East Riverside Drive housing 15,000 students. In effect every morning, or afternoon, we roust these kids out of bed and dare them to get to campus; dare them to cross the I-35 bridge over Lady Bird Lake that carries 274,000 cars a day. Block-headed stuff.

The second perfectly predictable thing that happened was that west campus started to deteriorate, started looking like hell and became unsafe for young women at night. My election in 2003 apparently scared just enough people to where even some of my detractors listened to me. I told them I would work really, really hard to try and protect the truly historic, detached single-family neighborhoods like Hyde Park to the north of campus, but I need some open field running on west campus.

So we muscled through what became known as the University Neighborhood Overlay, increasing heights from 35 feet to 220 feet in certain spots, all as an opt-in provision, that is, the developers have to opt in and accept all of our standards to get that height and density. They have to meet commercial design standards. They have to have wide sidewalks that are well lit at night. They have to have shade trees. They have to have commercial space on the first floor of all the residential buildings, employment opportunities for the kids who live there. My goal is to get 10,000 UT students living adjacent to campus.

This is west campus looking towards the east. You can see seven projects have already been done. There's a 22-story building almost finished there in the front right. There's a couple still in construction. President Bill Powers, a good friend of mine, has his office is in the old tower on the third or fifth floor maybe, looking to the west. He tells a story that just a few weeks ago his assistant, who apparently has been the assistant of the President’s Office for 30-some-odd years, walks up as he's staring out the window to the west at six tower cranes. By the way, 37 projects have been completed, three are under construction and 33 more are in the pipeline to be built.

So Bill is looking out across west campus at the tower cranes. The assistant walks up and she stares out the window, too, and she said, “Oh, Mr. President that must so upset you from this point of view.” He stopped, he turned around and he said, “That is the finest thing I have seen yet in Austin.” Because he knows thousands of his students will move in, live next to campus and walk to school. Austin is this young, educated, safe, dynamic town. But in the one square mile of west campus, more young women are attacked on those sidewalks at night than the rest of the city combined. So from a tax-based standpoint, from environmental standpoint, from a public safety standpoint, it's far and away the right thing to be doing.

Downtown Austin is a great asset for all of us as Texans. Larry called Congress Avenue the Main Street of Texas earlier and I couldn't agree more. It is a fabulous sort of palette to work with, if you will. It's relatively small; you can get your arms around it at 200 square blocks at the most. There is this unbelievable building at 12th Street on Congress Avenue and, of course, Lady Bird Lake as the other bookend.

But I think it's been sort of miserably underutilized all these years. Ten years ago today, I was chairman of what's called the Downtown Austin Alliance, a group of private property owners downtown that were desperately trying to figure out what we could do to kick start and revitalize downtown. Austin had a couple of relatively attractive office buildings built back in the '80s as so many Texas urban centers have. But frankly, not a whole lot else. Seventy-five percent of downtown Austin ten years ago was vacant surface parking lots or one, two-story, often times derelict buildings.

So I decided to use energy policy as a way to spur downtown revitalization. I'm pleased to hear Rafael's technical explanation about some of the dynamics. We own our electric utility. I get to be chairman of the board of Austin Energy, the ninth largest public power utility in the country, about 3,000 megawatts of generation, nuclear, coal, gas, West Texas wind farms, $1.4 billion of annual revenue. It is a nice asset to have and control.

Through energy policy we can drive downtown revitalization. We decided to build a publicly owned, downtown, chilled water district system. It's an old technology. Big campuses have had it forever. We spent $81 million. Of course, the electrical engineers at Austin Energy designed and built the first one and it's ugly as hell. But luckily, they put it right next to the City Hall. The next one I got control over. This is a crummy photograph I took of a gorgeous piece of public art that is a 37,000-ton chilled water district cooling plant; whereby each night we freeze the equivalent of 37,000 tons of ice, store it underground, underneath two parking garages in downtown. We built 37,000 lineal feet of piping throughout downtown.

All the high rises you see in Austin being built right now, the new City Hall, the Convention Center, Convention Center Hilton Hotel and virtually all private-sector development is out of their minds not to tap into this. Not only do we save a typical high rise maybe $5 million in up front capital costs on just the condensing units on the roof, a remarkable reduction in the square footage needed inside the buildings for NEP systems, for storage, for maintenance, the roof doesn't have to be structural to the extent that it has been. That is millions of dollars of up front capital savings for the developers. So they all want to tap into this, right?

We freeze ice at night, mostly from our West Texas wind farms. You probably know that the dynamic in West Texas, generally speaking, is that the wind blows more at night than during the daytime. Off peak when we don't need it. We need it for air conditioning in the middle of the afternoon in Texas. So what we do is we take West Texas renewable energy, freeze 37,000 tons of ice stored under downtown, it melts during the course of the day and we guarantee exactly 42-degree chilled water to all of these customers. So in the afternoon when they turn on their air conditioning, it doesn't even record on our peak load.

We have the capacity now for 20 million square feet in downtown; only about 8 million square feet has even been spoken for. The three tallest buildings in Austin are under construction right now; they're all residential, they're all tapped into this. We could triple the development in downtown Austin and essentially not increase our peak demand for a generation during the afternoon. A remarkable, positive benefit no matter how you measure it. Three billion dollars in private sector tax base, right where we want it. We already have the infrastructure. You know, the City of Austin's carbon footprint doesn't increase as millions of square feet are air conditioned in the afternoon.

When I was elected in 2000, 500 people lived downtown. Today 5,800 people live downtown. There are 4,000 units under construction downtown right now which will house another 7,000 people. We're going from 500 people to 13,000 people living in the core of our downtown. When that happens, particularly in high rises, water use per capita plummets. Especially with the chilled water system, energy use per capita plummets and vehicle miles traveled per capita all plummet with this style of development.

This was a typical streetscape in downtown Austin in an otherwise relatively attractive, relatively safe, relatively vibrant downtown ten years ago. This is West Second Street. Notice the little old historic, two-story building there on the left. Well, thanks to help from new member Larry Speck, that's the same historic building. That's the world headquarters for Silicon Labs. And, of course, their buildings are all tapped into our chilled water system downtown.

Because of that now, Second Street among several others, we have this dramatic improvement as far as the streetscape. We have 32-foot-wide sidewalk, double row of shade trees, sidewalk cafes. Now as the residents are finally moving in all around it, the dynamics of downtown are really changing.

Here is Cesar Chavez. This is also ten years ago, but it could have been last year. Last week I cut the ribbon on the new 30-foot-wide promenade along Lady Bird Lake. It's just a fabulous piece of streetscape infrastructure that really is driving, I think, additional demand for folks to come into our downtown.

This graphic is about a year old. Half of those buildings have now been built and two or three others are under construction. Every single one of those buildings that are highlighted is tapped into our downtown chilled water loop system. It’s just a remarkable vibrancy in a swath of downtown that virtually was no man's land five or ten years ago.

I should have a different graphic to highlight this. I used to tell people ten years ago they could drive around downtown Austin and the worst real estate they saw was probably own by taxpayers. All the stuff along the river, a 1920-era water treatment plant, an old electric generation plant, two or three vacant blocks of land downtown, we owned as a city.

Now we have virtually every one of those blocks back in the hands of the private sector, hundreds of millions of dollars of tax base built on land, some of which was done for long-term leases, some of which we sold for dramatic capital gains that we're doing other good stuff with. So here are three or four of the new ones that have been built. Fifteen tower cranes are still up in downtown Austin right now, six or so in west campus.

So the three big projects: The Mueller redevelopment of our old airport, what we're doing downtown and then what's happening on west campus. Bergstrom, our new airport, has room for a second terminal- it's going to last us 75 years worth of expansion probably - is six miles from our CBD. Our CBD, of course, is adjacent to the State Capitol complex. Capital of a state of 25 million people is adjacent to the University of Texas, the largest single urban academic node in North America. Two miles from there to Mueller, our city within a city.

Any five-year-old could play connect the dots and with 11 miles are these five major, major urban activity centers. Ten miles of rail could connect our airport to our CBD, one of the fastest revitalizing CBDs in the country, to a State Capitol complex that's going to continue to grow, to UT, to what's happening at west campus and to Mueller. By the way, the route actually goes along Riverside Drive and picks up the 15,000 students that are there now.

Here's East Riverside Drive where all those students live. It's halfway between Austin's new airport and a vibrant downtown. It's horrific today, but what it really should be is an urban, passenger rail served, core transit corridor with remarkable upside. What can happen on this six linear miles between our airport and downtown dwarfs the positive change they've done at Mueller, west campus and downtown. This could be just a remarkable asset at a time when mobility is clearly Austin's Achilles' heel. For us not to take advantage of ten miles of rail and connect the five most dramatic urban centers in central Texas would be a sin. Hopefully, our next big set of initiatives will be urban passenger rail for Austin.

I'll close with that, a photograph of our new award-winning City Hall, Gold LEED certified. Luckily, you can't see the chilled water behind it. It's just a reminder that public policy matters and architecture matters because what it does, it sets the tone, the underpinnings, good urban planning that then allows for the design community to deliver on the architecture that we all as Texans should demand. Thank you all very much, it’s been an honor to be here with you.


speaker  mem wynn Member and speaker Will Wynn, Mayor of Austin. Photo by member John Gullett.



Dr. Flowers: If I could ask the panel to stay, we have about ten minutes of conversation here and questions from our philosopher audience. I have a question, which is what is being done in terms of the whole Texas Triangle, that whole mega-region that we've seen so much about. What are we doing together in that corridor, in that triangle?

Dean Steiner: I think the answer is probably not much at this point. It may be that what I described as a national initiative. Interesting that there are now very serious discussions; John Kerry and Arlen Specter filed legislation a few weeks ago to really jump start the national high-speed rail network. And who knows? Maybe there will be an opportunity to come back to that here in the Texas Triangle.

You know, it's interesting that most of the big cities in the Texas Triangle now have an urban transit system underway. And why not jump start something in San Antonio, as well? You could imagine a network of high-speed rail connected with regional rail and streetcar systems in every one of the cities in the Texas Triangle. Houston, of course, is already moving ahead with a five-line network. Dallas is doing similarly and so forth. So you could imagine this creating the kind of infrastructure that would support the compact pedestrian and transit-friendly sustainable places that everybody has been talking about today. That's the vision. There hasn't been a lot of action and there needs to be soon.

Mr. Costa: Let me answer from the lectern so you can see me. And I can duck behind it if you don't like my answer. I think we have the building blocks of an approach to the mega-region in the form of regional visioning initiatives that are under way in three of our metropolitan areas. In fact, the first one was launched in Austin. Fritz Steiner has chaired Envision Central Texas, which has done a remarkable job in building consensus, finding common ground about what's truly special about that region of our state, what's worth preserving, what's worth creating for the future.

We've done similar things in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. We call it Vision North Texas. We've been underway for four years now. It came about because of major real estate investors.

I'm glad Marilyn Taylor's here because it was the Urban Land Institute, ULI, that came forward with the North Texas District Council and said, unless you folks in the public sector get your act together and do something about traffic congestion and air pollution and water shortages and other problems that are facing us we're not going to be able to develop real estate in the region.

And so ULI and the Council of Governments and U.T. Arlington, private, public educational sectors got together and said, we're going to work together to build consensus about what kind of region we want so that we can begin to make coordinated decisions to achieve that vision. We're doing exactly that.

In fact, next Tuesday in Arlington we have our North Texas Regional Summit bringing together public officials, developers, engaged citizens to talk about a preferred future. And the one conclusion we've drawn so far is that business as usual, suburban sprawl is not going to be sustainable, is not going to be acceptable for the future. So that's what we're doing in North Texas.

And even in Houston we have Envision Houston Region. I had a chance to represent ULI on a panel there earlier this year. The folks in Houston are moving in that direction. They don't want zoning, but they want better long-term planning. And you can have better long-term planning evening without zoning ordinances. Those are the building blocks, I think, for doing something for the Texas mega-region.

Mayor Wynn: Well, I'd say, also Betty Sue, it's really hard politically. It's just that governance in Texas is so damn fragmented. Just in the Austin area there are 20 municipalities that I try to deal with and we try to work together as an NPO and it's really, really tough. I think the fractured structure, makes the logistics virtually impossible from the bottom up. It's going to have to be a state-driven set of issues for the Senate and the House to take up for us.

Audience: The rest of the world, particularly China, but also in Europe and Japan and Korea, the rest of the world is moving ahead with very bold investment and urban development strategies for mega-regions. We're going to get run over by the Chinese and we are being run over by the Chinese economically. They're moving ahead with hundreds of billions of dollars being invested in the systems that we're chatting about here. They're just moving ahead with it. They've got the same problems with provinces that don't like each other and so forth. They've done a really good job of moving beyond ideology and dogma towards common sense, moving beyond political divisions to make the investments. We're not doing it and I think this is one that we ignore at our own risk.

Dr. Flowers: There is a Chinese character that says crisis and opportunity. And in crisis, which we certainly have now, perhaps there is an opportunity finally at last to come together for the future.

Audience: I'm Mark McLaughlin from San Angelo. One of the greatest disappointments in my life is the failure of the United States to properly develop the safe use of atomic energy. And we talk about pollution and carbon pollution, et cetera, which we all recognize needs to be lessened.

But in talking about green energy out in West Texas, I see the wind towers, forget the vision pollution with the erection of these towers plus the difficulty of moving electricity into the grid which causes the construction or, currently, lack of construction of transmission lines. What can cities do about the safe development of atomic plants near our cities? Are we being discouraged or encouraged or is that a viable solution? I know about France, for instance, which has a multitude of small nuclear generators which are close to a site of the use of the electricity. They do very well. Why can't our cities encourage that?

Mayor Wynn: Well, I'll just say it's not a city issue. It's a utility issue and then a regulatory issue. Austin and San Antonio, of course, own utilities, so we have that potential for policy input. Nuclear power is going to have to be part of a complicated solution. Arguably, it generates no greenhouse gas emissions. Austin Energy's fuel mix is less than two-thirds carbon based now in part because we're 24 percent nuclear and maybe 11 percent renewables, mostly West Texas wind.

We still have the policy prerogative, opportunity, I guess. There's a potential expansion of the South Texas nuclear plant in Matagorda County. We're just a minority interest holder in it. But we have to have the come-to-Jesus discussion in Austin about if we're going to meet our targets.

We have very aggressive targets on reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions, both operationally and as a metro-economy. Right now wind, as attractive as it can be, as fun as it is to talk about solar, they're not dispatchable. Sometimes the wind doesn't blow and sometimes the sun doesn't shine. Our economy has to have power when it's needed. And until we can figure out how to dispatch renewable energy we have to look at other sources of base load.

Audience: My name is Lloyd Lochridge. And I'm a citizen of Austin. My luck there has been very great over the years because I was born there and had the good fortune to return there from time to time after young and helpless, my father left the newspaper world and went in the oil business which took us East where I was for some of the days when I was trying to grow up, which I'm still trying to do.

But I have a kind of long look at history now, having survived these years. And I can remember as a boy when we lived in the East the terrible depression. And I can remember grown men who could not find jobs, who had had jobs, who wanted to work. Actually, I can remember them selling apples in the streets of New York. And that was a terrible time in our history.

I don't like to think that we're about to have another time like that. And I think that what we have today is we're going to have a new administration. And Lord knows that no matter whether you were for him or against him, the president-elect is certainly in high gear putting together an organization that will do the best it can to have a recovery plan. And I know we all wish that effort well.

But what's occurring to me is that this great symposium that we've had here now in which the architects have a vision, they have many visions for what might be done about the environment. I've heard things from the Honorable Will Wynn, Mayor of Austin, about what's going on in our own city that I'm afraid I didn't even know or realize. But we may have an opportunity here in our country to have some of these ideas that have been coming out of this conference put into effect. Some of us can remember the days of the WPA projects and the great courthouses and public buildings that were built. What's occurring to me is that we may have an opportunity under our severe circumstances now on a national level and a state level to implement some of these good ideas that you all have been presenting here.

I would just like to know if any of you there on the panel or in the audience would share your ideas about whether there's a way that that kind of good can come out of our current situation. So I think that's really my question for you all.

Dr. Flowers: I think that is a great question for our general discussion tomorrow morning and a wise philosophical note on which to end this day. Please join me in thanking all the panelists who helped us out today.