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Council likes first look at downtown plan

Friday, February 15, 2008 by Mark Richardson

After making the rounds of boards and commissions for several weeks, Phase One of the Downtown Austin Plan written by ROMA Design finally made its way to the City Council on Thursday. Council members praised the work that went into it, and instructed city staff to begin developing some “what-if” numbers based on some of the recommendations in the document.


In an extended review, Jim Adams and Jana McCann with ROMA Group touched on the major elements of the report, which looks at how Austin’s downtown will develop over the next few decades.


Adams told the Council public input gathered developing the plan led to the creation of a set of core values that included making downtown livable, sustainable, diverse and inclusive, engaging and beautiful, and respectful of history and culture. He said the plan had four foundations, including physical form and place; sustainability and mobility; economic viability; and affordability and diversity.


Adams and McCann outlined the elements of the plan tied to each of the foundations, looking at items such as transportation, parking, streetscapes, land use, cultural venues and more for each.


ROMA’s plan proposes to sub-divide the central business district into 14 districts, with a plan focused on each area. Planners drew a square around the middle of the downtown area, or the Core District, with a smaller square district on each corner. On the east side is the Waller Creek District; to the south is the Waterfront District and on the west are the Northwest and Lamar-Shoal Creek districts. There is also a Capitol District and a UT-Northeast District. Each of the downtown districts gets its own plan, focusing on its strengths and priorities.


Much of the discussion following the presentation was about transportation, both within and into the downtown district. Council Member Brewster McCracken asked Adams about the different modes that might be used in the downtown area, from ultra light rail or trolley cars to commuter rail.  


“I think each of those systems has a role to play in a mature and comprehensive transit system. You would certainly want both,” Adams said. “A commuter system would typically serve a 25 or 30-mile system, and the streetcar system would be within a three-to five-mile radius. I think you want to develop a system that does both.”


McCracken said the CAMPO Transit Committee is also looking at transit systems that do not stop at the boundaries of downtown but link to regional system.  He also discussed transit systems that link the city’s major medical centers, particularly in light of recent talk about a medical school in the city.


“There is a possibility that you could have a rail alignment, as the Mayor spoke of, that connects Brackenridge, the medical school, Dell Children’s Hospital and maybe even St. David’s too,” he said. “I think it would be very important to consider the possibility, much as Houston has done, of linking the various medical facilities with a transit system.”


McCracken also asked about the allocation of parking in the downtown area.


“We have the perception that there is a lot of parking,” Adams said. “If you just look around downtown, the physical manifestation is really dominant. So there is a sense that we are providing a lot of parking for many of the buildings and we think there could be a more efficient approach to providing parking in the downtown area.”


Adams outlined the top five priorities for Phase Two of the Downtown Plan. They include:

  • Improving Downtown’s competitive position in the region;
  • Making it a stronger place, not just a series of projects;
  • Keeping it authentic and diverse;
  • Re-investing in the public realm; and
  • Dedicating leadership and funding towards implementation.

Mayor Will Wynn instructed staff to look at the Phase One recommendations and report back in two weeks with dollar figures on several of the proposed projects.

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