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Real Urbanism Is Rare

Back in 1998, Cedar Park adopted a comprehensive plan that set aside 42 acres of land along Highway 183 for a mixed-use, village-like town center.  They imagined something like this:

Cedar Park Town Center
The plan called for the city hall to be built there to anchor the town center and for the rest to be filled in with apartments and boutique shops.   But in 2007 the city voters turned down a tax hike to build the city hall there, settling on a cheaper location that had existing buildings.  

The plan was approved in 2001 and has been updated since, but the large tract of land lies fallow.  D.R. Horton owns the tract and has been seeking PUD zoning that would allow it to break from the boutique-shop plan and build something more like a generic shopping center.  This upset a bunch of the people who bought near the tract on the assumption that it would be a new-urbanist village.   Their protests have evidently worked, for now, because D.R. Horton has taken down its rezoning application.  

I don't blame the folks for wanting a quaint, urbanist town center.  But, honestly, the kind of thing they want is really an urban kind of thing, and is very hard to grow in a cow pasture.

Here's the economics:

There are no buildings in the town center today.  Everything must be built from scratch.  That means the retail must be built from scratch.  And new retail space in a mixed-use village is just as expensive, if not more expensive, to build as retail bays in a new shopping center.

No one's going to build that retail space unless they get the rents to make it worth their while.  And in order for the small shops they have in mind to generate the necessary rents, there must be a lot of traffic.  The kind of traffic this area will never generate on its own -- there are no significant job centers nearby, and there is no chance that the center will develop the residential density that could sustain a retail district by itself.  The town center doesn't even sit astride a major arterial, so drive-by traffic is out.

There's simply nothing to generate the kind of traffic retail would need to pay the rents to justify the construction cost . . . unless they were to build a lot of retail, with anchors to ensure a steady stream of traffic, and a lot of parking for all those cars.  But that's a shopping center, not a town center.

And, in fact, while the "town center" has sat, forlorn and vacant, on the west side of Highway 183, a nice, new shopping center has been built directly to the east:

1890 Ranch Shopping Center
And I mean "directly" -- the town center is marked in red:

Town Center - Shopping Center
All that parking is incompatible with an urban village, of course.  And that's the challenge: to build a mixed-use town center in a greenfield on the edge of town, you must solve parking.  Unless you do, you won't get retail.

One way to reduce the need for parking is to subsidize the retail rents in the town center.  In many vertical mixed use projects, residents subsidize the ground floor retail.  But people won't pay that kind of premium for housing in Cedar Park.

Another possibility is to build a lot of structured parking.  But the parking structure has to be publicly subsdized, because otherwise the shopping center would earn a lower return than all the shopping centers that simply build surface parking.  Let's see . . a compact, suburban shopping center, mixed with condos and housing, backed by structured parking.  We know what that looks like.  That's the Domain, a mixed-use village, heavy on the high-end retail, with expensive structured garages subsidized by the city of Austin.  The Domain barely survived a referendum by Austin voters to kill the subsidy a couple of years ago.  If the residents of Cedar Park aren't willing to tax themselves to build themselves a fancy city hall, they're certainly not going to tax themselves to build structured parking for a mixed-use shopping center.

These aren't the only ways to handle the problem.  But it's just a cold fact that greenfield mixed-used retail is very hard to pull off.  Mueller has a lot more going for it, both in terms of resources and local population density and employment, and its town center still has not broken ground.

The take away should be that places that support a compact, walkable, mix of housing, retail and offices -- i.e., urban places -- are actually pretty special.  There are just a few such places in the sprawling Austin metropolitan area.  They are places with either high employment density (downtown) or high residential density (UT/West University), or places that grew up organically along busy commercial arterials (South Congress and Guadalupe).  Some of Austin's older neighborhoods are blessed with a sort of small-bore urbanism -- little clusters of old stores and restaurants that no one got around to tearing down. 

Not everyone likes that.  But given their scarcity, it makes a lot of sense to let the few urban places in town be urban, and to make room for the people who do like that kind of thing.  There are plenty of neighborhoods in the Austin metropolitan area with no traffic or street parking or noise or bustle.  Most of Austin's neighborhoods are like that, in fact.  It's a waste to force that model onto the neighborhoods that have the natural ingredients for urbanism.