Sustainable urbanism under attack in Austin. Environmentalists: Make your voice heard.

Austin city council has worked for many years to co-create a vision with various communities and stakeholders to allow a new dense, mixed-use, mixed-income development along the south shore of Lady Bird Lake, including the former site of the Austin-American Statesman, currently a nondescript building surrounded by parking lots. This site is but one piece of the larger South Central Waterfront Plan adopted by council in 2016, and considered by environmentalists as one of the strongest climate-responsible infill development plans in the nation, including being recognized by the American Planning Association with an Award for Excellence in Sustainability.

The project proposed for the Statesman site, from developer Endeavor Real Estate Group and architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, would essentially extend the environmental and economic benefits of downtown across the Congress Avenue bridge to south of the river, with some buildings reaching 525 feet. This project would bring the people of Austin more than eight acres of parkland, hundreds of units of market-rate and affordable housing, and millions of square feet of commercial space. All of this will touch one of Austin’s natural treasures, Lady Bird Lake, and a Project Connect Blue Line Light Rail station.

In the midst of the Austin region’s affordability and climate crisis, the City of Austin has a unique ability to provide adequate housing supply and healthy, low-carbon lifestyles to the growing metro region. This project could be a real achievement for equitable urban development and help Austin reach its stated goals on mobility, housing affordability, and climate responsibility.

The residents of and people working in this project will have access to job-rich downtown, frequent bus transit, safe walking, biking, and wheelchair facilities, and the region’s dense spine of activity along new light rail lines. Residents, employees, and visitors to this area will likely drive less than they would living and working further from the urban core.

Urban living is green living. Shared walls reduce energy consumption of the residential units. Higher density means easier proximity to jobs, education, and other opportunities reducing per-capita vehicle miles traveled, the primary driver of increasing greenhouse gas emissions in Texas metro regions. 

Approval of this project will be a win for the people of Austin and for future residents of the city. The future of Austin, and all cities, is dense, connected, and green, and this Statesman project is a shining example of forward-looking development.

But, people long revered as environmental leaders of the Austin region are rallying against this project. From our point of view, opposition to this project from an “environmental” position does not make sense. This project is the kind of thing we need a lot more of in the Austin region, replacing environmentally destructive suburban sprawl development with much greener dense urban infill. A new park will be built where a surface parking lot now stands.

So, it seemed important to us to make it clear that many environmentalists strongly do not agree with the widespread claims going around about this project. There are important environmental concerns that could be addressed. The fact that this project is planned with 4,000 car parking spots, or that building human habitat in this ideal location is proposed to be capped at 525 feet. This project could be even taller, with less car parking, so that even more Austinites would have access to low-carbon, healthy lifestyles that projects like this can provide.

If you agree with the worldwide consensus of environmental leaders that dense urban development of walkable communities with access to high quality transit is a core solution, please contact Austin City Council today and make sure they hear your point of view as well.