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Teaching hospital skybridge remains an issue

Thursday, October 2, 2014 by Michael Kanin

City Council members expressed concerns over the addition of a skybridge to plans for a new Seton Teaching Hospital on Red River Street. Council Members Laura Morrison and Chris Riley both wondered how the feature would fit in with broader plans for the area.

Morrison cited a recommendation made by a working group of the city’s Design Commission. “One of the things that they raised was that they felt that we needed to take a bigger, more coordinated look at this whole area, and make sure that folks are working together,” she said.

Morrison then read from the group’s findings: “It seems far more important to recognize the status of 15th Street and the realigned Red River Street as important … for binding the new districts within the innovation district together. We encourage any and all efforts, public and private, to develop a comprehensive approach to these roadways in order to achieve a sense of place that transcends individual development initiatives and serves to bind all of the future projects together into a vital and humane part of Austin’s future.”

Riley was more specifically concerned with the very notion of a skybridge. He put the matter in context.

“This position on skybridges is not some weird Austin thing,” he began. “It really reflects a nationwide discussion about skybridges. They were very popular at a time — in the ’70s and so on — and now many cities are taking another look at that and feel that they went too far in (constructing) these sky networks because of the effects on the streets.”

Riley continued: “Current thinking is very much in line with what we see in the downtown plan; that it’s really better to focus on creating a welcoming streetscape for pedestrians.”

Though Council members took no action on the issue at their regular Tuesday work session, approval of the plan is set for Thursday.

As the Monitor reported Tuesday, Planning Commissioners last week approved an “aerial encroachment” that would allow the skybridge.

In her remarks, Morrison noted that it “seems that we at the city might be the party to pull all” of what the Design Commission suggested together. She turned to George Adams of the city’s Planning Development Review Department for an answer.

“To some extent, we are,” Adams said. “Although I think it could be more comprehensive in really looking at the district in broader detail; so, yes, we can do that.”

If Council members follow Planning Commissioners on the matter, plans call for the skybridge to connect a parking garage and the hospital across 15th Street. Seton President of Academic Medicine, Research and External Affairs Greg Hartman told Council that the skybridge would make crossings between the garage and the hospital safer.

Riley homed in on this idea. “I’m a little concerned about the suggestion that this bridge would be necessary for safety, because that seems to imply that there would be something inherently dangerous — to the point of being prohibitive — for pedestrians who would dare to actually cross this street at the ground level,” he said. “That strikes me as something that is really not the kind of environment we are striving for in this … innovation district.”

Hartman told Riley that he “raised good points.” Still, Hartman added, “You have to remember that this is a very steep incline slope from 15th down to Red River … so wheelchair, cane, crutch access … make it more complicated in terms of crossing the street there.”

“It’s not that it’s unsafe to cross 15th, particularly if you are fully ambulatory,” Hartman continued. “It does get a little tougher because of the heavy slope.”


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