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Skyway or the highway for teaching hospital

Tuesday, September 30, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Things got philosophical when the Planning Commission was asked to approve a sky bridge for Austin’s new teaching hospital last week. Ultimately, practical concerns won out.

Commissioners voted 7-1 to approve an “aerial encroachment” for the Seton Healthcare Family facility, near the intersection of 15th and Red River streets. Commissioner Stephen Oliver voted in opposition, and Commissioner Richard Hatfield was absent.

Ex officio member Howard Lazarus, who is director of the Public Works Department, explained that though encroachment agreements only have to go before boards and commissions if there is an adverse impact, he thought it best to bring this request through the process due to “sensitivity” about skyways and aerial walkways.

Historically, the city has been concerned about the deactivation of street levels when skyways are built. Lazarus asked commissioners to consider that, in this case, the sky bridge was servicing a hospital and patients who might have mobility impairments, and that the intersection does not have any retail.

Oliver asked if the walkway could be open to the air, and more of a gateway to downtown instead of a “glass box that may go out of style next year.” He was told that the design itself was not being considered, only the encroachment in the air.

“I have nothing against contemporary architecture. I love it,” said Oliver. “I just am concerned about when we build things over the public right of way, we are saying this is in your face for a long time. And that becomes difficult to retrofit over time, as things change.”

Eric Hammock, who works for the city’s Office of Real Estate Services, argued for keeping the skyway enclosed, saying that the reasons it might not be ideal for patients to cross a busy intersection, such as adverse weather conditions, could apply to other residents as well.

Armbrust & Brown attorney David Armbrust, representing Seton, told commissioners that all of the parking for the hospital will be across the street from the facility. He said that while he recognized the downtown plan discourages aerial walkways, this was a health and safety issue, and an exception.

“We estimate that there will be 6,000 people crossing the street daily,” said Armbrust. “They will range from people in wheelchairs to patients, doctors and volunteers. But 6,000 people crossing the street, every day, is a lot.”

He said that, at peak periods, 15th Street sees about 3,000 cars per hour, and imposing street-level crossing would be “very disruptive.”

The city’s Design Commission has said it would prefer a solution be found for an at-grade crossing. Commissioners also entertained the idea of an underground crossing. Lazarus said that cost-wise and function-wise, a sky bridge is more practical. Armbrust said that digging an underground passage would cost “millions of dollars” in construction.

Oliver pointed out that Austin does not have “a great track record” of loving sky bridges. He suggested that could be mitigated by building less than proposed and leaving the bridge open.

“I do think the design considerations have merit. I think the need for this outweighs them,” said Commissioner Lesley Varghese, who hoped that the hospital would consider the Design Commission’s recommendation.

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