Back in 2008, when City staff was interviewing consultants to develop a master plan for Downtown, the most important question we asked was: How have the plans you created been implemented?
It’s one thing to create a document with pretty pictures and impressive growth projections; it’s another thing entirely to bring that vision to reality. Redeveloping an existing area — one that’s historic in nature and already populated with residents and businesses — requires significant political will, lots of capital and a well-reasoned, publicly-supported master plan.
We’ve got that in Downtown Round Rock, and believe its worth our time to recount the major elements of our Master Plan, and how the vision the City Council approved back in 2010 is coming to fruition.
The Plan’s Mission is to “create a vibrant downtown that adds a thriving sector to Round Rock’s economy … a(n) active town center featuring a mix of retail, dining, entertainment, residential and public spaces, in a walkable and historically sensitive environment.”
The mission is to be achieved through an Implementation Strategy that included a series of catalytic projects, an updated mixed-use code, and policy initiatives.
Laying a foundation
First, let’s look at a few of the catalytic projects, which the plan notes will “have the potential to activate key sites in downtown with new dynamic uses. They can also create a positive ‘domino effect’ of redevelopment in adjacent areas.
- Prete Main Street Plaza — was dedicated in 2012 in honor of the City’s longtime parks director, Sharon Prete. The plaza, with its stage, fountain and sculptures, is home to events like Music on Main Street, and is super popular with families during the summer as spot to cool off and have fun.
- Centennial Plaza — This project was envisioned differently in the Master Plan because the City later decided to remodel existing City Hall instead of build a new one at this site. This plaza, opened in 2013 as the City celebrated its 100th birthday, features an amphitheater on Lake Creek, a smaller stage, and is designed to host large events and festivals.
- Round Rock Avenue streetscaping, Mays Street streetscaping — Construction on these projects is under way. Again, the finished product isn’t exactly what the plan envisioned, but the intended outcome is spot on: By realigning Round Rock Avenue where it intersects with Mays Street, Downtown becomes much more walkable, and the wider sidewalks accented with street trees creates a much more inviting space for pedestrians.
- Heritage Trail — Of all the great ideas to come out of the master plan process, this one may have the most significant long-term impact on all of Round Rock. The idea for a trail along Brushy Creek wasn’t new — it was already a part of our parks master plans — but telling Round Rock’s history through sculptural stories and interpretive signs really captured the public’s imagination. So much so, in fact, funding for it was part of a 2013 bond package that won solid voter approval.
So what’s been catalyzed by these projects? Here’s a few examples:
- The plazas are home to major events, such as Chalk Walk and the new Hometown Halloween. We did an economic impact study of Chalk Walk in 2014, and it generates nearly $400,000 in economic activity. Hometown Halloween drew 3,500 attendees in its first year in 2015.
- A Class A office building, Four Eleven, is under construction. The four-story building looks over Lake Creek and will feature a rooftop area for events. It’s located at 411 W. Main Street, next to Centennial Plaza and the Baca Center.
- The Grove, an event center on the banks of Brushy Creek, is also under construction. It’s at 204 Fannin St., just upstream from Veterans Park. It will overlook the Heritage Trail.
Mixing it up
Allowing for a mix of land uses in Downtown was critical, to “encourage quality development that is compatible with the urbane and pedestrian-friendly vision for Downtown ….” The Plan recommended a Form Based Code, but the City’s Planning and Development Services Department created a simpler solution — updating our existing mixed use code.
Prior to the implementation of mixed-use zoning, downtown consisted of a mixture of traditional commercial, office and single-family residential zoning districts. This permitted incompatible uses like used car lots and gas stations next to or across the street from homes. On top of that, the development regulations of commercial and office zoning districts made new projects extremely difficult. Required components such as on-site parking, landscaping, compatibility buffers and setbacks occupy a lot of land, and most Downtown lots are very small.
For City planning staff, the goal of the project was to make user-friendly zoning regulations that combined the form-based design standards recommended in the Master Plan with the City’s traditionally formatted zoning districts within the City’s Code of Ordinances. Staff created new mixed-use zoning districts to encourage sensible, compatible Downtown redevelopment. The new zoning allows only those uses appropriate for a compact, walkable Downtown; prohibits the less pedestrian-friendly ones; and establishes development standards that maximize lot usage while maintaining compatibility with neighboring properties.
The new code was adopted in 2013, after significant input from Downtown residents and businesses. The code was an award-winner, and, better yet, is encouraging development compatible with the Plan’s vision. Here are some projects enabled by the updated mixed-use code:
- New offices at 302 Lampasas and 306 Lampasas. They were started before MU-2 (Mixed-Use Downtown Medium Density) came into being when the land was still zoned C-1 (General Commercial), but were designed and developed with MU-2 standards in mind as it was obvious they would be rezoned soon.
- The Ring by Gold Gals, 110 E Anderson. Previously SF-2 (Single Family-Standard Lot), now MU-2. A multi-tenant retail and event center with a focus on weddings and other special occasions.
- An office conversion at 408 Fannin. Previously SF-2, now MU-2. Converted a home to an office on a large lot along Brushy Creek. Currently home to headquarters of Monolith Semiconductor.
The policy recommendations in the Plan recognize the City “will have a critical role in implementing several primary functions necessary to generate positive change.” Among the general actions the City has put in place:
- Historic preservation and adaptive reuse
- Hiring staff to work on the “activation of the downtown core,” through special events, and act as liaisons between Downtown businesses and the City
- Formulate and implement a branding and marketing campaign for Downtown (that’s where the logo came from)
- Implement a utility upgrade plan
On the first point, the planning staff completed a Historic Resources Survey, which was adopted by the City Council in 2012.
The City hired two amazing staffers who are focused exclusively on Downtown: Courtney Ainsworth, downtown manager, and Kristin Brown, special events coordinator. They are responsible for bullet points two and three above.
As to the utility upgrade, the City hired an engineering firm to map out what infrastructure is needed to support future redevelopment in east Downtown. The firm, HDR, presented its preliminary findings to the City Council in January.
It’s been a lot of work, and there’s certainly more to be done, but it’s a true labor of love. As it should be, as we work to make Downtown Round Rock Right. At Home.