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Downtown Austin Alliance aims to revitalize Congress Avenue

Thursday, November 18, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The Downtown Austin Alliance, with its initial Congress Avenue report done, is now working with city staff to create what it has dubbed “a bureaucracy-free zone” to revitalize the city’s signature thoroughfare.


Molly Alexander provided an update to the Downtown Commission last night, outlining some of the major themes that emerged from the recent charette process and noting some of the future milestones and goals. Working with organizations and city staff, the DAA wants to foster the type of private-public investment that will turn Congress into the boulevard it can be, Alexander said.


The planning process for Congress Avenue, now available at the DAA Web site, broke Congress down, block by block, asking stakeholders and participants what they want to preserve and what they want to change, Alexander said. A number of key themes emerged across the 11 blocks: a boulevard with outdoor dining, shopping, art, culture and theater, a place where history and architecture are preserved and where old and new can exist side-by-side, a place served by modes of transportation such as urban street car and rail as well as an exceptional pedestrian experience, and a place to see and be seen.


Turning a broad vision into a tangible reality, however, can be difficult, Alexander said. The DAA recently presented the Congress Avenue report to city staff with the specific goal of breaking down the barriers to entry for private investment.


Take live music, Alexander said. To program a downtown plaza with live music on, say, a regular day of the week for three months, requires three separate permits. And those permits, Alexander said, don’t line up.


“One size does not fit all,” Alexander said. “So how do we regulate outdoor music?”


Or consider something as simple as banners. For years, different departments handled different aspects of banners on lamp poles downtown. Now it’s been centralized to one department, but only Austin Energy can handle hanging the banners because the poles can’t sustain additional damage.


So even when something appears straightforward, it often isn’t, Alexander said.


To address the issue, the DAA has created a matrix it has shared with city staff, talking about the various barriers to entry when it comes to transforming Congress Avenue. The hope is to help the city and the private sector meet in the middle, possibly leading to some additional code amendments.


“We can create outdoor cafes and sidewalk dining and outdoor music,” Alexander said. “What the DAA wants to know is, how can we incentivize the private sector to really begin to come to the table and activate the right kinds of uses that are just spelling out onto the street?”


The DAA is working with a team from the city, led by Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards and Acting Assistant City Manager Howard Lazarus, to review city policies, Alexander said. The DAA has also made a commitment to work with other stakeholder groups, such as the Heritage Society of Austin and the AIA, to focus on goals.


The DAA’s annual Holiday Sing-Along & Downtown Stroll on Dec. 4 is being planned as a kind of test case for Congress Avenue goals of “placemaking.” Four underutilized spaces along the street, all different types and kinds of areas, will be activated for the event. A collaborative team, working with the Downtown Austin Alliance, has adopted each space, creating and building a concept that can be built and torn down in a matter of hours.


Among the goals for the evening: a living room space with storytellers and entertainment on the north side of the Old Bakery, a large winterscape at One America Center at Sixth Street and Congress, salsa dancing and music in the lobby of the Bank of America building, and use of some of the Trail of Lights elements at the Austin Museum of Modern Art.


The hopes for Congress Avenue are not new to the Downtown Commission. A number of commissioners participated in the planning process. One concern raised is the lack of evening activity along Congress. Commissioner Michael McGill noted how few retail businesses are open on each block during the evening hours, making the walking experience less than engaging.

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