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Rainey Street residents express frustrations at open house

Thursday, February 24, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

It was an opinionated crowd that showed up at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center Wednesday evening for a city-hosted open house to address the fallout from the rapid development of the Rainey Street neighborhood. The neighborhood was rezoned to Central Business District in 2005 and has been growing ever since.


City staff lined the perimeter of the crowded room. Representatives from the Public Works, Transportation, Parks and Recreation, and Planning and Development Review departments; Austin Energy; and APD were on hand to answer questions and hear suggestions from neighborhood residents.


City Council passed a resolution in January directing the city manager to develop short- and long-term strategies to address safety, congestion, and parking issues in the Rainey Street District and present his recommendations to the Council in 60 days.


The city staged the open house to hear input and potential solutions from residents and business owners. “Because we don’t want to offer any solutions right now, we don’t have any plans,” said Transportation Department Public Information Specialist Leah Fillion. “This is an idea meeting.”


“Part of the intention this evening is to find people that would be willing to serve on a task force and work with us,” said Public Works Department Director Howard Lazarus. “The best ally we have when we approach these problems is a well-organized and well-disciplined neighborhood association or group of neighborhood associations. That way we don’t get involved in the business of settling domestic disputes, but we can work with the stakeholders to come up with the right answer.”


Nora Bazaldua, who bought a property in the area less than a year ago, said her main reason for attending the meeting was noise. “My condo faces the street, right off of Rainey at the very south end, and I hear all that noise, people coming home at two or three in the morning, yelling and screaming and slamming doors,” said Bazaldua. “I get to enjoy all of that.”


The biggest crowds gathered around the representatives from the Public Works Department and the Department of Transportation.


“The number one issue that I hear the most relates to management of traffic to ensure pedestrian safety,” said Council Member Chris Riley. “I hear complaints from Rainey Street residents that as they drive they are having to dodge pedestrians and they feel concerned about pedestrians, concerned about hitting them.”


“It’s created a danger because of the mixing between vehicular and pedestrian traffic,” said Mike Abraham, who has lived at the Villas on Town Lake since 2003. “If we go back to South by Southwest, we had an issue where people couldn’t even get home because there was so much traffic; you literally couldn’t get to and from work.”


The lack of sidewalks in the district forces pedestrians to walk in the street, and the prospect of creating sidewalks is an expensive one if they are applied inside curbs; sidewalks applied outside of curbs, meanwhile, could further limit parking in the neighborhood.


Though the recently passed Austin’s Sidewalk Master Plan does not include plans to install sidewalks on Rainey Street, the situation may not require a separate bond.


“There are pools of money that you could draw from. Proposition One included bucket money to support sidewalks that are needed,” said Riley. “It’s not totally out of the question that money could be identified for sidewalk improvements. There are also other ways to achieve sidewalks. For instance, if a cocktail lounge required a conditional use permit, then you would need to file a conditional use site plan that would require installation of a sidewalk.”


The city hopes to ease the pain that the upcoming South by Southwest festival will inflict on Rainey Street residents. The next public meeting will be held March 30 and will focus on long-term solutions and challenges facing the district.


“Our goal is to come back after we collate all the information and present ‘these are some of the things we heard, and this is what we can do on an immediate basis,” said Lazarus. “Because if there is a safety problem we are sort of compelled to do something about it. Then long term, come up with a plan that works in concert with the redevelopment of the area.”

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