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Commission wants Convention Center overlay in downtown plan

Monday, February 22, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The Downtown Commission, concerned about parking limitations in the immediate area around the Convention Center and up Rainey Street, has recommended incorporating the Convention Center overlay district into the overall downtown Austin plan.


As city planner Jerry Rusthoven explained, the Convention Center overlay was passed to discourage the development of surface parking lots in the area. And the area was carved out of the current downtown Austin planning process.


“The city initially built the Convention Center without any parking, so there was a concern at the top that speculators would create a sea of surface parking lots surrounding the Convention Center,” Rusthoven said.


According to city code, boundaries of the Convention Center overlay district are roughly Congress Avenue, East Sixth Street, Waller Street, and the Town Lake shoreline. Government-owned property was excluded from the district. Still, Downtown Commissioner Stan Haas estimated the area probably covers about 400 acres, which a number of members found excessive.


Since the Convention Center was built, the city has built or acquired two parking garages, which are intended to handle the Convention Center traffic, Rusthoven said. Even so, city staff still supported the concept and use of the overlay district.


“We would still prefer not to see surface parking lots,” Rusthoven told the commission. “We would also still prefer to see compliance with pedestrian-oriented uses on the ground level.”


Rusthoven described the combination of city ordinances as “belt and suspenders.” Downtown, that combination is the Convention Center overlay, CBD zoning that requires a conditional overlay for parking lots, and the Waller Creek overlay.


The Convention Center overlay was met with a number of questions from members of the Downtown Commission. Bryan Cady, who lives on Rainey Street, questioned why surface parking lots were such an issue. Aren’t sidewalks, like the ones needed on Rainey Street, a much bigger influence to encourage pedestrian traffic, Cady asked, one of a number of times he brought up the need for sidewalks.


Haas, who noted the broad size of the overlay, said he felt compelled to raise the issue of infrastructure for pedestrians in the area.


“As a member of this commission, we initiated the whole Rainey Street zoning effort, turning it into CBD use, but we continue to have a lack of parking and a lack of pedestrian infrastructure along Rainey Street,” Haas said. “I’m surprised that all of staff believes we should continue to outlaw new surface parking lots in this area, and I might agree with you if that existed all over downtown, but it doesn’t.”


Rainey Street is home to a number of new eating and drinking venues. Properties in CBD zoning are required to provide somewhere between 20 percent and 80 percent of the required parking of “regular” lots.


Commissioner Richard Weiss noted that the overlay was put in place because only a handful of people own the land around the Convention Center. The intention was to encourage redevelopment of surrounding lots, at which time infrastructure would be added and sidewalks would be built.


“Do we have to wait four or five years?” Cady asked.


Commissioner Bruce Willenzik pointed out the city had yet to set aside a lot in the area for long-haul trucks that are used by shows and activities that book the Convention Center. When the vacant lots on Cesar Chavez at Red River are developed, that land will go away, even as other lots in the area are deteriorating.


Commissioner Michael McGill said calling such a large swath of land a Convention Center overlay is disingenuous. The land goes far beyond the Convention Center. He made the motion, and the commission agreed, to incorporate the land in the Convention Center overlay into the larger land development review process for downtown.

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