This is the third of four interviews with City Council District 7 candidate Melissa Zone on her candidacy and the issues identified in the AustinDistrict7.org candidate scorecard. The interviews are organized as follows:
What are the top 3 steps needed to improve North Austin’s mobility?
I would like to see us adopt transportation demand management strategies. Possibly telecommuting is one of them. The northeast area is a great area for this tech community. Why aren’t we making that an activity center hub, and providing the housing and providing the commercial. So now these tech people don’t have to go far if everything’s right there – land’s there.
The area south of Pflugerville, along Parmer Ln?
It’s a great area. There’s enough land there to protect the natural environment. It’s a tech hub. And then they’re not all trying to clamber down here. They have a great area there.
Developers will go there. We incentivize activity centers. CAMPO is pushing because the feds said federal highway and HUD have teamed up together to say “We are going to do walkable cities. We want them as activity centers.” And you should place them where you think there’s enough activity happening. It can be defined based on how you choose it. All industrial, or mixed use. The City has them. I think we should be encouraging the mixed use and the higher density in these activity centers, because that’s where our federal funds are going to be put.
That was one of the original Imagine Austin scenarios. The ‘distributed centers’ approach kind of got ignored, because they were only using certain metrics to explain the pros and cons. A lot of people keep coming back to that approach – more centers, but farther out.
It makes sense. The burden of affordability down here becomes less acute. Shifting the desired place to build. And all of that takes somebody reaching out. I’ve already done it, to some of the tech giants. And the ones I’ve talked to like that approach. And this helps because of my CAMPO experience. Most of our money’s going to that anyway. All the infrastructure’s being built. The county’s concentrating in that area. So why are we not doing that.
You have Tech Ridge, you have Howard Station. We already have train nodes there. The Domain – great activity center, we can start there. We can do our light rail – move it into those areas. And now we can move these people to different areas, and that goes to affordability, to saving land. it’s increasing density without impacting – it’s more holistic. We’ll get federal funding. The way they’re going now, I’ve heard them in meetings – we know we probably won’t get a lot of CAMPO money. Well let’s go for it. Let’s partner with Pflugerville, Manor. Let’s start doing that. They want it. They’ll give up some money – it’s less for us to have to spend.
Also – alternative routes to work. Those are great options. I’m not saying that it’s the be all, end all. But maybe during rush hour, a road is all one direction. Or maybe most of the lanes are, only one or two are going in the opposite – so that more cars are moving in a more efficient way. Bike lanes – put designated bike lanes. Why are we not having bike lanes on roads – you shouldn’t have a bike in the road competing with cars at anything higher than 30 mph. Someone’s going to get hurt.
When you talk about bike lanes, are you talking about striping, or cycle tracks?
You could do both – where things are faster you might have to have barriers. But even striping. We pay attention – we’re more courteous drivers here than people want to believe.
Because on Burnet they striped bike lanes. But I would never take my kid out there. It’s not meant for everybody.
Because we drive too fast on that road. Nationally the consensus is you shouldn’t share roads where it’s more than 30 mph. In Cleveland, they decreased the road speeds there to allow bicycles. If that’s what you want, that’s what you have to do and live with it. It wasn’t easy, it took a lot of years and community meetings. But that’s stuff you should do.
Why aren’t we staggering work hours? We have a young community here. Most of them will come in late anyways if you want them at 7:30 or 8:00. Stagger their work hours to be 10 o’clock, and then they leave at 7. They’re much happier with that anyway because they all go out at night. I would have loved those hours at 25. Then there are other people who get up – Phil’s a great example – he’s up and out of the house at 5:30 am.
Some of these things are policies that companies will do if they can, anyway. Is this really something the City can influence?
We do. They talk about it, but they haven’t really done about it.
For their own personnel. Are you saying the City should be going out to companies?
Well we can’t force companies, but we have tools. There’s a program called Commute Solutions. It’s taking Seton and other private companies with the City and County to come up with ways to reduce congestion. But you have to implement it, and see it.
Hospitals – they have odd work hours. So they don’t really hit that rush hour. But I’m sure we talked to a lot of start-up companies working downtown. Why don’t we offer them reduced bus pass rates. That gets them off the streets and on the buses. Those young kids will use it. We give CapMetro money – we can tell them how we want the money used. We want to extend the hours at night. Those are things we can do. We can see immediate changes.
In 2010, staff recommended to open the N Lamar-Morrow Street intersection north of Crestview Station to west-bound traffic. This proposal pitted residents in Highland neighborhood who wanted better east-west connectivity against residents in Crestview who feared a torrent of traffic down their residential street. The Council subcommittee reviewing the proposal voted 3-0 to open Morrow. Did they get it right?
No. Morrow is single family. The traffic that’s coming through there isn’t just to serve Highland. It’s a lot of people to throw people into our residential streets. I’m not saying it just because it’s Crestview, and I know people are going to think that. What we should have done is improve that intersection at Anderson, which is dangerous anyway. If we would have provided better access, improvements that could be done.
We actually went to the state to do exactly that. They aren’t interested in spending tens of millions of dollars on more projects
You provide enough data – there are a lot of accidents that happen there. The state also would partner with – doesn’t that help the City if we have better improvements at an intersection.
Crestview Station was coming in. Why weren’t we working with that developer for some kind of developer agreement to improve that area. The Highland neighborhood. They’re going to be wanting to develop up in that area. That could have been money used to improve that intersection. That’s what needs to be done.
Putting a lot of traffic onto a residential street – can you say with a good conscience that if someone gets hurt, well we didn’t know that… absolutely not. Once you improve Anderson, and by the way – how hard did the City work? I could call up the state myself and talk to the planning department
We did that – we met with the state. They’re the ones coming back saying, We’d love to help – we don’t have the money
They can. There’s federal money. There’s ways to improve that intersection. If it meant a lot for the city, they should have taken that on through one of our bond programs. That’s a safety issue there. Too much traffic. They need to champion it at City Hall. And knowing that you can do it – that’s the part where I get riled up. It’s not like we dropped the ball – you say, fine we’re going over you, we’re going to the feds. That’s how you get improvements. I hate to do it, but another child dies or gets hurt, you see how much money comes in. It’s a horrible thought, but that’s how some places do things.
Last year, a ProjectConnect advisory board voted 14-1 to approve a first rail line up San Jacinto and Red River to Highland Mall. Many rail advocates and several neighborhoods in North Austin argue that Guadalupe/N Lamar is a more logical choice based on current ridership. Others worry a rail line will accelerate development in suburban areas not yet supported by good pedestrian infrastructure, exacerbating mid-term congestion. There is also the wider debate about whether rail is a $1.4 billion gamble that trends like robot-cars will render obsolete, or a long overdue first step towards a more sustainable urban transportation system. Where do you come down on urban rail, and on the best route for an initial rail line?
Urban rail is needed. I support the idea of having urban rail. I don’t support the current rail line because it’s not serving the current population. Sometimes, to get everyone on board, they need to see it work. You might use that area because land is cheaper, or they think it’d be easier, let’s just get this in and show everyone. But if it’s not serving the people who are currently here, it’s not going to work.
Highland area will get developed eventually, and that’s when another line comes in, because urban rail shouldn’t be one line, it should be multiples. And that’s when we address that. The other thing is, when Guadalupe… and I’ve talked to people at ProjectConnect and the other side. Those who want the Lamar/Guadalupe route, I’ve always said to them, “Sounds like an easy solution.” However, Guadalupe goes through UT. There’s many factors – either UT doesn’t want it, or they might not be able to do it because of the way their land – there’s gas and mineral rights. They’re limited how they can spend money, what can be built. If we’re saying we want rail down Guadalupe, if there’s some underlying factors, we can’t make UT do it.
What do they need to do?
If you’re putting it down Guadalupe, why haven’t we heard from UT? That to me makes me … because the professors would use it. The students could certainly use it.
What I had heard previously was that UT was pushing hard for an alignment along San Jacinto.
See, I didn’t hear that. And why, that’s the thing – we don’t know. As a County employee, I provide data for ProjectConnect. The numbers don’t add up for the proposed line. I don’t have a preferred route, because to me I would want to see all the data there. I would want to talk to all the players. Our businesses and UT need to be in that room. If they were in the room, it was a private room discussion. I would have to know… and then from there I could make a professional judgement.
Two years ago, a developer sought a variance to build a 4-story apartment block at the Ross property at 8100 Burnet. The developer argued that the project puts mixed use housing on a transit corridor, contributing to the Imagine Austin goal of compact and connected. Opponents argued that the project would put too much density at a location a quarter mile from the nearest rapid transit station, and the project’s “easy in-and-out” design that wraps apartments around a parking garage core would just encourage more driving. Council supported the upzoning on first reading. How would you have voted?
That’s a large parcel, and right behind them are apartments. So as a planner it makes sense to have residential there. I didn’t see the site plan, so I couldn’t tell you the whole idea of it, but four stories – I don’t know – I would have probably wanted to keep it at two or three stories like the apartments behind.
They were proposing about an acre of commercial along Burnet, with a four-story apartment complex to the rear, adjacent to a creek.
I would have been worried about the creek too.
On the one hand, Burnet doesn’t have the infrastructure to support many four and five story apartments. When I look at housing, I’m looking at it from a planning perspective – what do we have in terms of waste water, roads, storm water – what can we handle there. The planning process should look at key sites and evaluate infrastructure. If it’s not sufficient, can cost-effective changes be made to upgrade it. Also, what are they [the developers] providing. I always like to think – well what have you contributed.
On the other hand, apartments make sense here because it was already adjacent to apartments and that car dealership. If you’re going to put multi-family somewhere, it’s a good area. I would question why four stories. And were they all like 1-BR, or would they have apartments in there that families could use.
Mostly one bedroom.
Yeah. So it’s going to become quick in and out. So that’s the part I would start questioning them on. But the use – I don’t have an issue with the use. This is one where form-based code would work. It wouldn’t be as large, possibly.
What are your priorities for the environment and open space?
We have to watch our creeks and our tributaries, our aquifers. If we put too much impervious area here, it’s harder for the water to seep through. Even in areas that aren’t recharge zones, the water makes its way down. So for the environment, I would love to see more conservation development. We cluster housing in some areas, capturing rain water.
Conservation development is a term I haven’t heard, but you’re saying you integrate the development with the environment.
Right. And they’ve done it here in Texas.
Yeah. It’s a great example. You’ve got a lot of density, but there’s still open space, and you can go shopping. The Riata – it’s expensive to live, but up in the northwest area – they use their storm pond system, and they put a track and a play area. It’s a great option because now you have the open space, areas for families, and then the apartments. Different apartment styles, and families live there, single people. Not the greatest in terms of having transit. They should work on that. But that helps the environment. I like to see that. Removing trees – that just creates the run off, because the roots get uprooted, it takes a long time – that dirt is so impacted, so that runs off into our sewer systems.
That troubles me a lot. This is Texas. It’s a heat island here. We need shaded trees. For new development, we should have more trees in place, and have them appropriate to our climate, so they don’t have to become water dependent once they are two years in. It creates living space for the birds, not just …. trees help when there’s a slight wind – it acts as a kind of fan for you.
Our ETJs [the areas just beyond the city limits] have a lot of land that we need to be watching and protecting. Up near the Balcones Canyon Lands, we have the water quality zones over the aquifer we need to [protect] better. We have Walnut Creek – make sure it’s not only protected, but that when we get more development along Lamar, that the storm water in impervious areas doesn’t just wash into there.
What will we lose with more development in areas that are critical to our ecozones? Those things concern me out east. The Black Prairie lands. We should be protecting some of that critical farm land, where there’s water, so that we can have sustainable farms, young people who want to live there, work there. And then we have less to travel for food. So now the food doesn’t have to go state by state, it’s a shorter access to us. That’s healthier. It’s not sitting in a truck for two weeks. Those things all contribute to a healthy environment.
I like to also increase our watershed. They started out really well, but they’re kind of reducing some of the regs. I think we should encourage stronger regulations. Now that it’s in place, we can. Save Our Springs. They’re gnawing away at that. We’ve got to be careful, doing some water planning at the county. I see that our Highland Lakes aren’t replenishing as quickly as they say. Once we do get that rain, it’s flooding because we have too much impervious area. Will water just stay stagnant, because it can’t get back and percolate into the ground. We’re creating flood-prone or flooded areas, just because of the way things will be developed. We have to be cautious with that.
Parks Department describes much of North Austin as an ‘open space desert’. The average open space in Austin’s urban core is 5% – in some North Austin neighborhoods it’s under 1%. With existing mechanisms, North Burnet Gateway will end up with about a third to a half the open space of Downtown Austin. The City of Austin allocated a paltry $4 million for urban land acquisition in the 2012 bond package. Yet getting new open space, and getting it where it’s most useful near transit, is expensive and getting more so with each passing day. Should Austin be spending a lot on open space in really expensive places?
Austin shouldn’t be buying golf courses. Austin should be using its money where there’s families, and there’s people who would use them. I wanted to get like Yellow Bike or someone partner with us, a public-private partnership with our park at Justin Lane. They could provide the bike racks – “Bike racks provided by Yellow Bike.” There’s commercial development that will be coming in. Why don’t they do something like Little Deli, and use our park space as a place where they can go and eat it. We need to integrate these parks where they’re going to be used. Parks people look at them as a drain [because of maintenance costs]. I look at parks as an asset to the city. This is prime land, it’s valuable, it needs to be there because that changes the people’s moods.
Build the type of park for the type of neighborhood. Downtown they have a big park that, other than serving homeless people in the morning and movies at night during the summer, it’s not used regularly. It’s Downtown. There’s a lot of trees there. Everyone likes to exercise. Why aren’t we putting in exercise components, like kiosks, where you can do handstands, push-ups, pull-ups. It brings people to the park during their lunch hour to work out. Encourage the use. Our [proposed Crestview] park – we’re looking to Sunshine Gardens – they’ll give us some money to defer costs, and we’d give them an acre for a community garden. People there in the morning, some at night. There’s people there. Make the park work for the community it serves. Brentwood park – great example – it’s right next to a school. Perfect for young families. I don’t see it as a drain on resources, but as an asset.
I would like to see the parks integrated with our libraries, senior centers. How wonderful would that be – it’s being used. The senior people come, the library’s there. But we also have a park. It becomes a community. We should look for those opportunities where they’re missing libraries up north. The lack of parks. Why not create an area that is inviting for everyone?
Development that comes up, have them contribute some of the land, and make it contiguous. The park might start as two acres. But as new development comes up, regulations ensure that adjacent sites contribute to the park.
Is that something you’d expect to see coming out of CodeNext?
It’s where you would put it. We’ve done that in Florida, all the time. With conservation land or preserves. We would say, “Your parcel has to have so much preserve land. If you’re building housing, you’re going to be having families…
A lot of the properties in our area are small. You have a lot of 2-acre properties that are marginal for redevelopment. They’re going – “How can I contribute open space when all I’ve got is two acres to work with in the first place.”
Right, but we’re talking – up in the north area, where there are much larger parcels. That’s the kind of thing you would work and partnership with them on. Smaller areas down here – we have to be more savvy and creative. Use our City-owned land for the parks. We have affordable housing gets adopted so it’s on site. Then we don’t have to use City-owned land for affordable housing, because we’d have it already folded into CodeNext.
The Ryan property [proposed as a park for Crestview Station] is an example where you have City-owned land. But say Burnet at Anderson – there’s nothing.
It’s going to be hard to go into an area that’s already developed.
Here’s a good example. The County has been trying to get the City to take over this small little park up in the northwest area. The City has annexed that area. But the City won’t take it. They’ve been trying for years. Since I’ve been here for four years, they were doing it long before I was here, to give them a park. It’s already here. It’s built, it’s developed. All you have to do is take ownership of it.
The City doesn’t want to maintain it.
That’s it. You’re going to lose your quality of life.
In a 10-1 universe, west Austin’s council members can be expected to resist spending, and urban council members will use Imagine Austin to justify funding that supports the city’s compact-and-connected goals. There’s a risk that infrastructure projects for suburban north Austin will continue to languish. What arguments will be effective in winning capital investment for suburban improvements?
For transportation infrastructure, I will advocate for use of the CAMPO Regional Transportation Plan and associated growth projections as the basis for allocating federal funding. Fifty percent of federal transportation funds in the next CAMPO funding cycle will be allocated to activity centers identified in both the CAMPO Plan and Imagine Austin. The majority of these centers will be in the suburban areas. Four of those activity centers will be located in North Austin.
For locally funded transportation projects, the transportation impact fee ordinance I plan to propose would require funds to be spent on arterial road construction in the same defined geographical areas in which they are collected. I predict that 10-1 will result in infrastructure investment decisions being more localized. Future bond proposals will likely be district specific with voters having a greater say about the major infrastructure investments planned within their City Council districts.