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Overlay district will pave way for Heights’ future

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Aesthetics matter.

That’s an undeniable fact — and the premise behind the comprehensive Development Overlay District 1 plan approved recently by the Harker Heights City Council.

The plan is an ambitious one, setting a host of design and appearance standards over the next 20 years for an area along Knight’s Way/Farm-to-Market 2410 from Central Texas Expressway southeastward to the eastern city limits.

The overlay’s details are laid out in an 88-page document described as “a zoning tool that guides the future growth and character of an area consistent with a specific community plan or vision.”

The plan does more than address design and building standards; it sets a framework for a cohesive community free of what the document terms “visual chaos and functional inefficiencies.”

The overlay district incorporates several key design features: a distinct identity and character for the Knight’s Way corridor; an emphasis on building design that supports pedestrian-oriented public spaces; parking spaces that are both functional and aesthetically pleasing; and development of landscaping that is pedestrian-friendly, aesthetically pleasing and environmentally responsible. In addition, the plan requires approved screening between commercial and residential areas.

These proposed features may seem unrealistic and perhaps even unattainable, given many developers’ preoccupation with the bottom line.

Indeed, the artist’s rendering that adorns the document’s first page — looking east along Knight’s Way from Pioneer Trail — envisions two massive, multistory professional office-style buildings, each surrounded by abundant green space and featuring open-air plazas. Several smaller retail centers line the corridor, also surrounded by ample green space.

For longtime Harker Heights residents, it may be difficult to envision such high-end development occurring along what was a simple two-lane road not so long ago. But considering the significant growth the area has witnessed since the Walmart Supercenter opened its doors in 2005 — including the addition of a multistory, full-service hospital — projecting similar development over the next two decades isn’t so far-fetched.

There are two important premises at play here. First, unless development along 2410 is regulated and coordinated, it is not likely to be aesthetically pleasing or compatible with surrounding neighborhoods. Secondly, if the corridor is well-planned and developed, it is much more likely to attract the kind of high-end properties envisioned by the document’s authors.

Austin-based residential developer Chris Doose, who is building a master-planned community called the “Enclave at Heights,” called the overlay a huge draw in comments to the council recently.

City Manager Steve Carpenter said strict development standards could draw national investors and raise land values as well.

Creation of the overlay district was more than two years in the making by city staff and City Planning and Development Director Fred Morris. Make no mistake, it is an important step for a community experiencing dynamic commercial and residential growth.

That said, it won’t change the area overnight. Morris said it will be about 18 to 24 months before residents see any significant impact.

In addition, the plan is not set in cement. Morris noted the city will continue to revise the document as needed moving forward. That’s as it should be.

In the abstract, it’s easy to set standards and specifications, but how they apply to specific developments must be taken into consideration as well.

Some business owners have expressed concerns about the signage and screening regulations — and that’s to be expected, as with any new building guidelines.

But this document is crucial if the city is to realize its full potential — at least along FM 2410.

As the old saying goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

And Harker Heights officials have taken a big first step to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Contact Dave Miller at dmiller@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7543

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