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City seeks to improve Rainey Street infrastructure

Monday, December 10, 2012 by Michael Kanin

City of Austin staffers have recommended Council members approve a set of major infrastructure changes to the emerging Rainey Street entertainment district to improve sidewalks, parking and traffic flow.


City officials shared their ideas at last weeks meeting of the Austin City Council‘s Comprehensive Plan and Transportation Committee. Those thoughts included three scenarios and price tags ranging from $600,000 to $800,000.


The sudden explosion of the Rainey Street neighborhood from a residential area into a primarily bar-and-nightlife district is a recent development. As such, there was little infrastructure – both from a coding and a public works perspective – to support the dramatic change.


City officials are in the process of getting a handle on the situation. According to Public Works Director Howard Lazarus, various Austin departments are working on improvements to the area’s streetlights, parking and infrastructure.


Officials pitched three versions of potential additional changes. The first – a pitch that they called “minimum investment” – would simply add parking, including pay facilities on streets and in the Mexican American Cultural Center parking lot, and improve the street lighting in the area. Staff noted that this option would “not address traffic and safety issues” and would probably “generate opposition from all stakeholders.”


The other two alternatives were very similar, and featured identical price estimates. However, one pitch would turn a portion of Rainey Street into one-way thoroughfare, northbound from River to Driskell streets. The other would not. Staff argued for the one-way option, suggesting that it was the best solution to safety problems brought on by the current arrangement.


Area residents had concerns about that idea. “Turning Rainey Street into a one-way street was not something we had accepted,” argued Rainey Street Neighborhood Association treasurer Andre Suissa. “That was something that (we) – especially business owners – were not really ready to approve.”


Still, Council Member Laura Morrison signaled some support for the one-way option. “I hope there’s something that we can work out, because I think that is really a constrained street,” she said. “Having only one lane of cars, in my view, just as an anecdotal user of the street … is going to significantly increase the safety on the street.”


Code changes are also looming. One of the factors that played into the sudden change in the district was its new central-business district zoning status. As such, cocktail lounges are allowed as a permitted use – a situation that allows people the freedom to develop single-family structures into bars.


An amendment that would make cocktail lounges a conditional use – and thus force developers to come back to the city if they want to build a bar is making its way through the city process. Austin planning manager Jerry Rusthoven told Council members that the amendment would come before them in early 2013.


If city officials get the go-ahead from Council members on the major improvements, they suggest that some work – including pay stations, parking improvements and a limited Residential Parking Permit program – could be implemented in early 2013. More dramatic changes – including a switch to one-way traffic along Rainey Street – would have to come after next spring’s South by Southwest festival.

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