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Downtown Commission considers booming Rainey Street District

Wednesday, November 24, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The Rainey Street District was compared to an awkward teenager at last week’s Downtown Commission meeting, in need of some guidance toward maturity.


Hard to believe, but its been almost seven years since work began to shift zoning along Rainey Street from single-family to Central Business District. In the last year or so, the area has been fraught with problems of congestion and noise resulting from what residential neighbors have admitted is too much success for the small neighborhood to withstand.


Commissioners Stan Haas and Linda Guerrero put the Rainey Street District item on the commission agenda last week, with Haas noting it was the Downtown Commission that supported up-zoning to CBD and the Downtown Commission that ought to be willing to look at solutions for the two pressing challenges of the area: outdoor noise for the soon-to-be seven bars and the lack of parking and pedestrian access that is putting bar patrons at risk.


Rainey Street residents, especially from the area’s condominium towers, attended the meeting. Rusty Tally, president of the Milago Homeowners Association, outlined the concerns of many of the 800 residents in the area’s various residential towers.


Rainey Street, Tally said, has become one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Austin, as was intended. The future promises only more dramatic increases of traffic and congestion within the neighborhood.


“The plan is working,” Tally told the commission succinctly. “The problem is it’s not working perfectly.”


Tally, a savvy one-time fundraiser for the Long Center, didn’t hesitate to mention the downside of such low-scale development for the city’s long-term plans for Waller Creek, noting that owners who choose the short-term bar or restaurant will eventually hurt the prospects for the tax base intended to fund the Waller Creek tunnel project, which will kick off construction early next year. Waller Creek was predicated on higher and better use, he said.


Other residents provided a litany of concerns, mainly centered on the traffic and noise issues associated with outdoor music venues. To move the ball on the issue, Haas provided a list of traffic-calming suggestions, including the removal of parking on one side of three of the major streets in order to promote pedestrian circulation in the area.


The city’s Transportation Department took exception to that proposal, but commissioners agreed to soften to “suggestion” status ideas such as new stop signs and traffic calming, with the intention of hearing back from the Transportation Department next month. Haas admitted his proposal was intended to jump-start the discussion process after months of complaints from residents that city departments had not responded.


City departments, however, did not hesitate to send representatives to the Downtown Commission meeting, including Greg Guernsey, who explained new efforts to try to find some middle ground for outdoor music permits that are longer than the 24-hour per month permits but something less than an outdoor venue. Those options are being reviewed, and proposed, by the Music Commission and include additional flexible options, Guernsey said.


The commission also discussed parking options, with the Transportation Department informing the group that traffic calming and traffic stops are determined by law rather than stated preference. That did not stop the commission from supporting the proposal, if only to get the city to invest some serious discussion into solutions for Rainey Street.


One-time Downtown Commission Member Craig Nasso, a resident of Rainey Street, also spoke. He was the one who compared Rainey Street to an “awkward teenager” and encouraged the Downtown Commission to “help the area through that phase.”


The Downtown Commission, which typically reserves its December meeting for a lighter holiday party, will likely want to hear an update from city staff on the merits of possible recommendations next month.

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