Stephen Burnett | Community Impact

Leander weighs new ideas for walkable, urban center

On Jan. 13, a marketing firm held its first community meeting about promoting Leander’s transit-oriented development district directly to commercial developers.

Leander City Council approved a contract with M. Arthur Gensler Jr. & Associates Inc. on Dec. 5 for the marketing of the 2,300-acre TOD district surrounding the Capital Metro train station. City leaders want the area to be reserved for urban mixed-use development, City Manager Kent Cagle said.

“We’re trying to build an urban, walkable environment in a [non-urban] green field,” Cagle said. “That is a very difficult task.”

Construction would tend to be vertical, with buildings that include first-floor retail or offices, with apartments above. Development would also include higher-density residential condos, townhouses and office space, all accessed by walking.

In the January meeting, City Council and other representatives spent hours discussing marketing goals with Gensler.

The firm’s one-year contract is for $54,000 plus reimbursable costs such as travel. The contract says the firm will meet with the city and stakeholders seven or eight times, producing cohesive TOD district branding that includes a logo, marketing materials and a website, Cagle said.

At the end of 2014, City Council will review Gensler’s progress and consider whether to renew the contract, he said.

Meanwhile, city officials hope to revise the Smart Code, a unified land development code used specifically for the TOD district. Leander’s earlier code version was more academic and often perplexed developers, said Tom Yantis, city director of development services.

“Now that the economy has recovered, I think we’re really trying to get ourselves into a position to take advantage of it,” Yantis said.

The city can subsidize some construction and infrastructure within the TOD district, but developers must first commit to the mixed-use project centered on the rail station, he said.

Only a few communities throughout the U.S. have built such a successful development, Cagle said.

But because Leander has spent years investing in Capital Metro, city leaders still want to build that kind of neighborhood in the city, Yantis said.

“We’ve got to insist that this happen in that location,” Yantis said. “Otherwise, all that we’re going to be is a Park & Ride [city].”

If Central Texas cities only emphasize car-centric development, gridlock will persist, Cagle said.

“If rail is to be successful in the Austin area, we have to change development patterns, or we will have wasted our money,” Cagle said.