East Side Redevelopment

On first reading, Austin City Council approves a new vision for the East Riverside Corridor

A new vision for the East Riverside Corridor

Austin Photo Set: Meng_east riverside_march 2013
Rendering of a proposed rail stop on East Riverside. Courtesy of Erica Leak, City of Austin

East Riverside Drive is well on its way to becoming a more pedestrian-friendly center where Austinites can walk, shop and gather. After a few postponements and many stakeholder negotiations, the Austin City Council approved the East Riverside Corridor Regulating Plan on first reading at its March 7 meeting.

For the most part, the plan has stayed consistent with the one that staff prepared and originally brought to City Council. However, the public hearing that was held back in November 2012 gave rise to a few points of opposition, some of which were discussed and voted on at the recent council meeting.

 “This is complicating the code on steroids. As we say in South Austin, it just seems ironical.”  - Mayor Lee Leffingwell

The highlight issue of contention for the evening was the restriction against new drive-through facilities anywhere within the East Riverside Corridor. Existing drive-through facilities would be given amnesty, but on the condition that they would not remodel more than 50 percent of their property.

If they did want to conduct a major overhaul, the drive-through component of their establishment would no longer be allowed. Unsurprisingly, this restriction brought forth significant protests from the owners of the 19 drive-through businesses in the corridor.

“If we don’t see some help on the amendment here, then we would lose our facility that has been here for 32 years,” said a second generation restaurant owner in the area who had been planning a remodel and spoke at the November public hearing.

Others, including Mayor Lee Leffingwell, see the ban as a disadvantage to economic growth for the city at large.

“It’s really an economic development killer to put this kind of restriction,” said Mayor Leffingwell. “The density we’re trying to achieve wouldn’t happen, or would happen much much later.”

Perhaps some of the Mayor’s misgivings were due to a larger skepticism about the additional complexities the Regulating Plan would bring to Austin’s land development code. During the discussion at Thursday’s meeting, he commented, “I’m remembering the discussions from earlier in the day about the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, and the desire to simplify the land development code. This is complicating the code on steroids. As we say in South Austin, it just seems ironical.” 

As a solution to their concerns, business owners proposed an amendment to allow existing drive-through facilities to remain even after significant remodel. Remodeled drive-through businesses, however, may be required to adhere to the Regulating Plan’s design standards, and make accommodations such as putting their drive-through lanes at the back of their building. The amendment was passed on a vote of five to two, with Council Members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo voting no.

"It pretty much gives the drive-through entitlement to that land in perpetuity,” said Council Member Morrison in defense of her vote. “… I really question that whole concept of giving drive-through rights to land.”

A few council members also made a motions for relatively minor changes to the plan, which may be discussed at the plan’s next readings. These include changing some language about the affordable housing fee-in-lieu, lowering the zoning for a few properties in the nearby Penick neighborhood and allowing conditional use permits for some automotive-oriented businesses within the corridor.

The second and third readings for the Regulating Plan will likely be heard together, the date is currently set for March 28, 2013.