by Sebastian Wren
A large plot of vacant land has recently gone on the market at the corner of Koenig and Lamar. The grassy field immediately north of the Goodwill / Half-Price Books parking lot is in a prime location for a large apartment complex. Maybe a mixed-use building with a grocery store in the first floor? Wouldn’t that be nice?
Unfortunately, height restrictions currently make this an unacceptable use of this plot of land. Instead of a 9-story apartment complex with interesting 1st floor amenities that would benefit this neighborhood, this land will be probably be used for a small apartment complex — 4 stories tall — with nothing of interest on the first floor.
This land has potential for some affordable housing options. This land has potential for housing for people who want to use public transportation. But unfortunately, this land also has potential for a Taco Bell. An apartment complex is the most likely development, but height restrictions make fast-food burger-chain development a viable option. (Anybody been to the In-N-Out Burger lately?)
Now don’t get me wrong — height restrictions and compatibility regulations make a lot of sense next to single-family homes, but they don’t make sense in places like the corner of Lamar and Koenig (next door to the Kentucky Fried Chicken).
People in our neighborhood were very successful in battling the “Stealth Dorm” model of development. We very appropriately fought to reduce occupancy limits from 6 unrelated adults on a “single-family” property down to 4 unrelated adults. This drop in allowable occupancy has basically killed the Stealth Dorm. (And long may it stay dead.)
However, that does not help the housing shortage in this town. We have an obligation to find opportunities for people to live in Central Austin. We have said “no” to Stealth Dorms, but we need to say “yes” to a different form of development — something we can live with.
Personally, I think mid-rise housing options along major transit corridors are “low-hanging fruit.” We have thousands of acres of under-utilized land on major bus routes. Surface parking lots and empty fields are the first places we should be looking for urban infill.
I would argue that the Camden Lamar Heights development at the corner of Lamar and North Loop is a much better use of that land than a half-abandoned strip center. Hundreds of people now live next to a bus stop, and that’s good. Soon a few hundred more will live on the other side of Taco Cabana — housing for people instead of a used car lot. Highland Mall will soon be redeveloped, and thousands of people will soon live there, work there, and go to school there.
The opportunities for urban infill development that does not dramatically diminish our quality of life are abundant. And I would say we would be wise to take maximum advantage. Instead of allowing 4 stories next to Goodwill, we should encourage the developer to build 10 stories. They should double the height of development next to Taco Cabana — it wouldn’t hurt anybody. Highland Mall? The sky’s the limit as far as I’m concerned. How would it affect your life to have a 20-story building next to I-35?
Let’s take advantage of opportunities to say “yes” to housing options. Let’s be the progressive neighborhood that understands that people want to live here, and let’s find a way to open the door to new neighbors without destroying what makes this such a desirable neighborhood in the first place.