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Everything you need to know about Austin’s South Central Waterfront district

A plan for Downtown-like development south of Lady Bird Lake is about a decade in the making, but may reach implementation by this summer.

A drawing of Austin, with Lady Bird Lake stretching in the middle, shows a clump of skyscrapers and tall buildings south of the lake on the other side from Downtown.

The vision for the South Central Waterfront district outlines a second Downtown-like development south of Lady Bird Lake.

Art by Stephanie Bower, via the City of Austin

Table of Contents

Austin’s South Central Waterfront initiative — a plan encouraging intentional, Downtown-like development south of Lady Bird Lake — is gaining steam, with implementation potentially beginning as early as this summer.

About a decade of effort will culminate as a draft regulations plan on the desks of Austin City Councilors next month. Here’s what you need to know.

What are we talking about?

The South Central Waterfront Vision Framework was adopted in 2016 as a set of guidelines for the development of 118 acres along Lady Bird Lake, south of Downtown.

The concept? To get ahead of rapid development predicted for the south Austin area, which abuts popular public spaces like Auditorium Shores and the South Congress shopping district. In total, the SCW district spans 56 parcels of land between South First Street and Blunn Creek.

In 2022, the City directed staff to develop a set of regulations for this area, prioritizing:

  • A pedestrian-first environment
  • Open spaces and public places
  • More connections to the waterfront
  • New affordable housing units

That set of regulations was released in draft form last month.

Breaking down the plan

The draft plan centers on two major facets: a combining district and a density bonus program.

Combining district

The established combining district clusters the parcels together as a group, delineating properties affected by the proposed regulations.

Density bonus program

The optional density bonus program will allow developers to build larger buildings in exchange for community benefits like affordable housing or green spaces. This effort is similar to the Downtown Density Bonus Program, which was established in 2014.

Under the draft plan, the tallest building allowances would be clustered on the intersections of South Congress Avenue, Riverside Drive, and Barton Springs Road, with size becoming gradually more restricted on the southern and eastern edges of the district.

In the long run, the city also envisions the plan will bring ~480 new affordable housing units to the area.

A map outlining the South Central Waterfront district with colors denoting the building height allowances.

Under the draft plan, larger buildings — with a floor-to-area ratio of 24:1 — will be allowed in the red zones on this map, with building size gradually decreasing outward.

What else should I know?

Nothing happens in a vacuum, and that’s especially true of development news in a rapidly growing city like Austin.

Project Connect
The SCW district directly overlaps with planned light rails as part of Project Connect, including its Waterfront station. Officially adopting the density-centered regulations in the SCW draft plan could not only provide more housing near the rail lines, but help Project Connect secure federal funding for construction.

The former Austin American-Statesman site
The largest project in the South Central Waterfront District is the proposed redevelopment of the former Austin American-Statesman site.

After several years of discussion, Austin City Council approved a zoning change for this site in December 2022, establishing the property as a planned unit development and paving the way for development to move forward. Although subject to change, early plans for the site include a 275-room hotel, 1,400 living units, and retail + office space spread across six towers.

TIRZ
The City of Austin set aside a tax increment reinvestment zone, or TIRZ, for the SCW district in 2021. Under a TIRZ, a baseline property tax is set, but as property values grow, additional taxes collected over that baseline number are set aside for infrastructure and affordable housing.

The district received its first revenue package from this plan — $742,077 — this fiscal year, but officials predict it could bring in more than $350 million in the coming decades. However, the TIRZ is currently being challenged in Travis County District Court.

What’s next?

The draft plan is currently moving through city boards and commissions. It’s expected to reach the City Council in April, with possible adoption by summertime. Following an approval of the plan, the city would almost immediately begin rezoning properties in the SCW district.

The SCW plan is scheduled to be updated and re-evaluated every five years, but the team behind the first draft outlined aims to update the document even sooner.

South Central Waterfront Advisory Board meetings are open to the public, and the next one will take place at 6 p.m. on Monday, April 15. You can also submit comments by emailing LDCupdates@AustinTexas.gov.

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