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City Council OKs move toward preserving downtown alleys

Friday, March 22, 2013 by Ramon Ramirez

The City Council approved a move toward preserving Austin‘s alleys for uses beyond parking and loading Thursday. They voted 6-1, with Mayor Lee Leffingwell in dissent, to approve a resolution from Council Member Kathie Tovo asking City Manager Marc Ott to provide a time frame for a downtown alleys study.

The debate focused on the phrasing of resolution language. Specifically, what some interpreted as a mandate for the City Council to refrain from amending city code related to alleys until after the study’s conclusion — a potential, temporary freeze on vacating alleys. Ott is to report back about options regarding a master alley plan on June 20.

“I couldn’t support anything that would direct the Council from taking action on anything in the future,” Leffingwell said.

After some back and forth, the Council agreed that they “shall carefully consider any future alley vacations” during this study. The tug of war over the future of Austin’s alleys seems to be between day-to-day pragmatists and long-term planners.

Michele Lynch, land planner with Metcalfe Wolff Stuart & Williams LLP, cited problems with potential red tape, “I’m concerned that (the study) may negatively affect clients such as mine that have alley vacations in process at this time,” she said, “Rainey St.’s sub-district is actually a different set of block standards—the effect of alley vacations there are more problematic in general.”

Tovo’s alley preservation efforts are tied to the potential of alternative uses for urban alleys. These include restaurants and bike friendly green spaces. She cited specific cases as far away as San Francisco and even the Republic of Estonia where alleys had been developed by local officials into hubs for pedestrian commerce.

This issue came up earlier on Thursday during unrelated talks to approve second and third readings of an ordinance affecting downtown off-street parking and loading requirements (City Code Chapter 25). The ordinance aims to allow loading and unloading in alleys from temporarily parked vehicles. Yet Tovo stressed the need for balance, wanting to “honor the work that members of our community have already done,” and warning that “we are closing off the possibilities” by pre-emptively allowing this defined use of alleys.

Council Member Chris Riley countered Tovo’s concern that this ordinance would undercut the possibility of future creative plans for alleys. “Loading or unloading is a permissible use (of alleys) that dates all the way to 1839,” Riley said, “It serves a very valuable purpose to ensure that we have a convenient place for loading and unloading.”

Riley stressed that this would clear up more street traffic, and be safer for bikers and pedestrians. The second and third readings were approved by a unanimous vote after Tovo offered an amendment that called for more research.

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