05 Apr, 2016

Which came first? The chicken or the egg— NLand Surf Park as the bell cow for a new development corridor and community and place-making/urban planning model for East Austin

05 Apr, 2016

During the Honokea team’s year-long stint in Austin, TX, putting the NLand project together from scratch, one of the biggest decisions to be made was obviously where to build it. Given the geographical layout of Austin, and the amount of available & flat land, it was clear that our options were mainly to the East and to the South of the city center. Our master architect, Steve Yuen, and his firm, Group70 International, have been involved with several large scale projects and seen how they affect surrounding communities and businesses. This gives Steve quite a unique angle on the topic. Here are Steve’s thoughts on NLand Surf Park’s role in the changing face of East Austin.

NLand Surf Park's Location to the SE of Austin, TX

NLand Surf Park’s Location to the SE of Austin, TX

Much has been written by the Austin area media, in particular from the business sector, on the anticipation of the regional impacts that the impending opening of the NLand Surf Park will have on the pace of development of what many might characterize as the under-developed Texas Highway 130 corridor, east of the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

Whether the NLand Surf Park might be an actual catalyst for this transitional region from cattle pasture to new-urbanist edge city, or whether the stars have been aligned for positive news ever since the Circuit of The Americas race track was developed some 5 or more years ago, what is clear is that this corridor of Austin is on the upswing. For Honokea, the excitement lies in part with the potential for growth that might be viewed in a slightly different way than all that has occurred recently north and west of Austin, along the MoPac and with new and recent business moves such as Dell, Google and a host of others, and with the face of consumerism represented by commercial mixed-use developments like the Domain.

Understanding the differences in future scenarios is to understand the unique strategic design and development process that Honokea engages, as well as to look a little more at the character and life of Highway 71, heading past Garfield and towards the town of Bastrop.

Pre-development view of SE Austin, where highways 71 and 130 intersect

Pre-development view of SE Austin, where highways 71 and 130 intersect

In certain respects the NLand Surf Park location has, for Honokea in its earliest thinking, shared a greater emotional connection and locational proximity to the East Austin community, and a greater number of community-building and celebratory attributes with the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines some 5 miles to the East, than it does with the emerging airport-related mixed use to the West.

The reasons for this powerful human connection are found in the unique ways that Honokea looks at every project and every site for potential development. While much can be found on its website regarding surfing, surf resorts, and the essence of the Honokea brand, the underlying Honokea thinking on place-making relates to a careful reflection along the following for establishing a project development process with 3 themes always considered:

1 The historical and formative roots of the project typology
Tied to original markets or demographics; the formative context, and expressed as a duality, especially beginning with a paradigm for projects in Hawaii, as a result of the many complexities of contact/pre-contact or hospitality guest/host/site components.

For Honokea, the roots of the business model are in Hawaiian culture in its totality, with surfing, stewardship, and aloha as touchstones, incorporating secondarily the world’s tremendous love affair with surfing in the post-war, and addressing the synthesis of this basis with its influence and juxtaposition on contemporary culture. In this case the demographics and neighborhood context begins with East Austin and the Del Valle community, extending to a regional central Texas connection, leading to the expression of a cross cultural synthesis, which is expressed as Hapa.

2 The appropriate relevance of the natural and cultural environment;
The context of nature and the landscape, in Hawaii invariably tied to the cultural context of the Native Hawaiian host culture and its relationship to the land.

In the case of Austin, the development theme speaking to culture is tied closely to the history and reputation of settlement in the area. From the Native Americans and Spanish influences, to the modern day quirks that make Austin vibrant, water-oriented, music-loving and weird, as unique urban place in Texas and America, the all-important value for Austinites is authenticity.

In the context of the natural environment, careful consideration of the geology, hydrology and landscape history have lead to themes celebrating the Blackland Prairie ecology of the region and a deep respect for water conservation and a permanent open space network.

3 The urban design/community context (Place-making)
An assessment leading to support for strengthening the connective context in human and physical terms: buildings and facilities, as well as activities/experiences, and often leading to great place-making and experiences in a civic or hospitality/resort context. (This is the setting for urban design response, even before architectural style).

In this context, The NLand Surf Park holds great potential for growth, as both a focal point of activity for health, life-long learning, exercise and fun, as well as an emerging community center and “third place” and anchor within a mixed-use development area that could at some point extend beyond commercial and highway frontage potential to include possible adjacent master planned residential and community uses in a range of densities and deal structures. – Steve Yuen