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Convention center skybridge postponed by Planning Commission

Monday, April 17, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

A request seeking permission to construct a pedestrian skybridge connecting the Austin Convention Center and the Hilton Austin hotel downtown was postponed by the Planning Commission last week. The case, which the commission came close to denying altogether, will now be reviewed by the Downtown, Design and Urban Transportation commissions before returning to the Planning Commission in May.

Before agent Nikelle Meade even made the case for the bridge at the meeting, Commissioner Greg Anderson voiced strong opposition to the plans. He cited the city’s Urban Design Guidelines which read: “Pedestrian bridges and building flyovers should not be permitted anywhere downtown.”

“(Skybridges) separate the haves and the have-nots,” Anderson said at the meeting. “You have folks that are protected in their skybridges and then folks that are on the streets.”

In order to build the bridge, Austin Convention Enterprises, Inc. is requesting an aerial right-of-way encroachment of 2,451 square feet over Fourth Street near the intersection with Neches Street. The proposed overhead walkway would sit about 50 feet above the street, linking the sixth floor of the Hilton with the third floor of the convention center.

Meade argued that the project made sense in the context of other infrastructure developments in the area, like the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s new rail line and plaza as well as a new Hilton Cafe. “There’s a lot of traffic going between those two buildings,” she said. “We just want to give people another option.”

Anderson remained unconvinced and made a motion to deny the request. Some of the commissioners expressed regret about an earlier approval for the Fairmont Austin hotel’s canopy walk, another skybridge leading to the convention center.

“I felt like I was too late into the process to oppose that one,” Commissioner Jeffrey Thompson said, “but this one feels like, ‘If they have a skybridge shouldn’t we have one too?’ Where does it end?”

Commissioner Chito Vela agreed. “The only reason I can think of to grant the request is to be ‘fair,’ and that’s not a good reason,” he said.

Other commissioners wanted more information, with commissioners James Shieh and Karen McGraw asking for more details about the streetscape at that location and more precise numbers on the foot traffic. Following their lead, Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza made a substitute motion to postpone the item until the May 23 meeting so the three other commissions could take a look at it and give their recommendations. Commissioner Angela Pineyro De Hoyos seconded.

“My goal in sending this to the three boards is certainly not to slow it down or kill it,” Zaragoza said. “I just want to make sure that it works.”

Meade said the postponement would be doable for the applicant, on the condition that the item could come before City Council before its summer break since construction was scheduled for the fall. Andy Halm with the Office of Real Estate Services said it was possible, but he could not guarantee that it would be scheduled in time.

Shieh suggested that if the applicant was not able to meet with all the other commissions before the postponed date, the Planning Commission would still reconsider the case.

Photo by LoneStarMike (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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