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Leffingwell lays out vision for downtown

Thursday, October 29, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Mayor Lee Leffingwell put his three goals for downtown – improved sidewalks, a second convention center hotel, and an urban circulator system – on the table at yesterday’s Downtown Austin Alliance State of Downtown speech.

Leffingwell, addressing a crowd of about 300, appeared keenly aware that he follows two mayors who made significant inroads downtown. Mayor Kirk Watson got revitalization downtown going by describing downtown as Austin’s living room and the region’s economic engine, Leffingwell told his audience. And Mayor Will Wynn, already a former DAA chair and downtown developer when he was elected, focused his sights on moving people back into downtown, laying out a challenge of attracting 25,000 residents by 2015.

After decades of stagnation, Austin’s downtown has added 3,500 new residential units with more than 5,000 new residents. The downtown grid had added 875,000 square feet of office space, 1,200 hotel rooms, and nearly 250,000 square feet of retail space.

Ahead will be additional residential towers, a new $60 million federal courthouse, and, within two years, the start of construction on a new $100 million central library, Leffingwell said. The Waller Creek tunnel project, which will be completed in 2014, should revitalize the east end of downtown. If all goes well, it also will create a small medical city around the existing University Medical Center–Brackenridge campus, Leffingwell told the luncheon audience.

“Some say that this much emphasis on downtown is bad. That downtown is already overdeveloped, or that we put too much focus on downtown,” Leffingwell said. “It’s not, it isn’t, and we don’t.”

Leffingwell reiterated his desire to see a transportation-related bond election in November 2010, one that would include specifics on a downtown circulator system. The goal would be to finally have a transit system that would allow someone to park once and then easily get around the entire Central Business District.

“I know that people are skeptical of rail,” Leffingwell said. “I’d say, study our urban rail proposal when it comes out, and then you can decide to support it.”

The one option that is no option is to do nothing, Leffingwell said. Early in his speech, Leffingwell spoke about the downtown heyday of his youth in the 1940s and 1950s, followed by the fallow years and what he called “the lame ‘80s.”

“The state of Austin is strong, and it’s getting stronger every day, but there’s always more to do,” Leffingwell said. “We need to do it right downtown so that the downtown of 2020 makes the downtown of 1940 look like the downtown of 1980.”

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