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City panel reviews plan to convert East Sixth to a ‘Festival Street’

Tuesday, December 3, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

A proposed “Festival Street” for downtown East Sixth Street got high marks from those on hand at the Council’s Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Committee Monday afternoon.

The city has $1 million on hand for the project’s design, thanks to the 2010 bond package. Public Works Director Howard Lazarus told the committee that the city would talk further with stakeholders to make sure they were headed in the right direction before starting the design process. Lazarus said that he would be seeking feedback from the city’s Chambers of Commerce, boards and commissions and other stakeholders as next steps.

The total project cost is estimated to be $19 million, which remains unfunded.

Tim League, who founded the Alamo Drafthouse and spoke as the immediate past-chair of Sixth Street Austin, described the project as a “real humdinger.”

“This project has to go forward,” said League. “The infrastructure is failing.”

“I think it’s long overdue, quite honestly. You look at the fact that we can’t provide electricity for lights to light up the trees for Christmastime because the circuits are overloaded, and we get flooding on the sidewalks every time it rains. It just doesn’t feel like a street that should be adjacent to the convention center in one of the greatest cities in America,” said League.

There is also a push to make Sixth Street more appealing in a more general sense.

“Currently, it’s attracting the type of visitor we don’t really want,” said Jennifer Walker, the Director of Marketing and Communications at the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau.

She pointed out that the “Dirty Sixth” moniker that is frequently used to describe the area isn’t ideal.

Sixth Street improvements were prioritized in the 2011 Downtown Austin Plan. Currently, the street pavement, sidewalks and drainage all need improvements.

Staff is proposing a “festival street” on downtown Sixth Street similar to the improved section of Second Street Downtown. The street would have no curb, a trench drain and retractable bollards.

The idea behind the concept is a street that is flexible and able to accommodate both everyday uses and special events.

The plan also includes three travel lanes, one of which could be converted into parking, a bike lane, trees and brick accents.

Lazarus acknowledged some business owners that are opposed to the plan have come forward with their own plan. He said that their main focus was retaining existing hard surfaces, retaining 10-foot sidewalks (instead of 18-inch sidewalks), head-in angle parking and two lanes of traffic.

Lazarus said that he would continue to work with those parties, but a main focus would be to retain traffic lanes. He explained that merchants in the area had concerns about parking and the potential effect of extended construction on the street.

Former Mayor Will Wynn spoke in support of the proposal, saying that he was intentionally uninvolved with the stakeholder process but “very pleased with the result.” Wynn owns the historic Randerson-Lundell Building, which was built in 1896 and has been involved in preserving other historic downtown buildings.

Meredith Bossin of the Waller Creek Conservancy and Molly Alexander of the Downtown Austin Alliance also spoke in support of the project.

Lazarus told In Fact Daily that the project was part of a larger picture, noting that over the past five years, the city had reduced the number of marginal and unsatisfactory streets to 20 percent from 30 percent.

Though he was reluctant to state anything as certain, he estimated that the design could be complete in the next year, with enough information about the project possibly ready in time for the next bond package. That election is widely expected to be set for November 2014 and include funding for urban rail.

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