It's a crucial time in Austin for constructing sustainable communities—developer Terry Mitchell and sustainability expert Lucia Athens discuss the delicate balancing act of building green.
As Austin’s population continues to explode and diversify, city officials and developers are working together to offer residents more walkable, sustainable living options. Lucia Athens, Austin’s chief sustainability officer, and Terry Mitchell, president of Momark Development (whose projects include the city’s tallest highrise, The Austonian), recently discussed why it’s important to give residents a sense of community and how new real estate developments are helping achieve that goal.
Lucia Athens: A typical Austinite spends 42 hours per year stuck sitting in traffic. We are beginning to understand and unlock this relationship between urban environments and happiness and less stress and greater health. Naturally, people living in more walkable communities are going to be healthier. People are going to spend more time socializing if they’re not exhausted after a long commute—not to mention the decreased pollution by not driving as much.
Terry Mitchell: That’s why increasing density is so important.
LA: But people sometimes misunderstand what that means. It can have a negative connotation. The city has identified growth centers—all over, not just downtown—where there are plans to increase density, so there is more mixed-use development served by public transportation. At the same time, we are seeing the trend of trimming down energy and water bills in the way developments are designed and constructed. Developers are thinking more carefully about integrating rainwater collection systems, and the city changed a lot of codes to make it easier to reuse water on a site. You’re seeing more solar and just a general [decrease] of the utility and energy footprint of development.
TM: With our development of The Denizen (2800 S. Fifth Street), we really worked to not just build urban condos, but a real community. We have an on-site community vegetable garden that is irrigated with rainwater collected from roofs. It’s located on a transit route, so residents have the option to ride the bus. There are spaces where residents can gather and watch movies. Their average electric bill for a 1,100-squarefoot unit is about $35 per month, and the average water bill is about $15 per month.
LA: That is a great example of how this city is maturing. So much of our market is now a young population that doesn’t want cars or to worry about home ownership. They are satisfied with smaller units.
TM: The smaller a unit is, the more important the outdoor environment is. We humans are made to connect. The smaller the spaces are, the greater the need to have those connecting areas outside your home. That’s why it’s vital to include shared public spaces in any development. People are finding they live better and happier if they get to see their neighbors every day. The young person of today is far more educated about lifestyle and housing than we were. They are more discerning. How you build is just as important as where you build. And, Lucia, you’re right; there is a trend toward smaller and more urban living. All this low density has come at a cost. It’s been great to preserve trees, but at the same time we can’t generate enough of a tax base to maintain the infrastructure in a lot of neighborhoods.
LA: That is a big problem in this city. You can’t be a fiscal conservative and be against density. Every neighborhood needs a fire department, library, police department, etc., and we don’t have the resources to support all of that.
TM: With The Denizen, which sits on 8.5 acres, we added $40 million of tax base and no infrastructure costs. We built it without adding new roads. Roads won’t last forever, and taxpayers have to pay for that in perpetuity. We need to have appropriate density in appropriate locations, not just downtown. If you’ve got a hole in a roof, are you really going to think about adding on? Shouldn’t you fix that hole first? We’ve been one of the fastest-growing cities for many years, but all of that was being done at low density. As a result, you’re seeing taxes going up and services down because we can’t pay our bills.
LA: The city is working to rewrite landdevelopment codes and identify middlehousing types. We don’t have enough townhomes or cottage housing. When people visit here, they are stunned at how much land we have, and how spread out it is. There are so many opportunities with already developed property—a lot of assets are underutilized. And people need to understand that adding density doesn’t mean we’re not setting aside open space. We still need parks and access to green space. You’ve got to have both. One of our biggest challenges as a city is how to redevelop so rapidly while still maintaining a sense of community and the character of the city.