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Convention center skybridge earns Planning Commission approval

Friday, May 26, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

A proposal for a skybridge connecting the Austin Convention Center to the nearby Hilton Austin hotel will make its way to City Council after a narrow Planning Commission vote approved staff’s recommendation during its May 23 meeting.

The applicant, Austin Convention Enterprises Inc, a nonprofit created by the city and run by a board of directors made up of city staff, had come before the Planning Commission previously at its April 11 meeting, where Commissioner Greg Anderson led the charge to deny the request, in part based on a conception of skybridges as elitist walkways that separate the wealthy from the rest of the city’s pedestrians.

Commissioner Nuria Zaragoza offered a compromise at that meeting by proposing that the item be postponed in order to give the Downtown, Design and Urban Transportation commissions an opportunity to review the case and share their feedback with the Planning Commission.

Despite skybridges not conforming with the city’s adopted Urban Design Guidelines, the Design Commission recommended this walkway on the condition that the applicant take additional measures to make it more accessible to the public. Agent Nikelle Meade explained that the bridge would be usable 24/7 on the Hilton side and during rail station hours on the convention center side. “Although we are not trying or asking people to utilize the walkway,” Meade said, “we do want everybody to know that it’s open to the public.”

The Urban Transportation Commission likewise recommended the bridge and encouraged the applicant to do more to maximize its capacity. The Downtown Commission also gave its approval with a few minor conditions.

Planning Commission Chair Stephen Oliver, who had been absent when the proposal had come before the commission in April and who had also been the lone dissenter when the commission had heard the Moody College of Communication bridge case, said that he supported this bridge’s design for all the reasons he hadn’t supported that model.

“I do think with these unique conditions that the elevated walkway would not be taking away from the streetscape,” Oliver said at the meeting.

But the additional endorsements did not sway Anderson, who doubled down on his opposition to the project. “We are setting the bar the lowest we could possibly set it,” he said.

Anderson pointed to the fact that the only obstacle between the main entrance of the Hilton and that of the convention center is the Lance Armstrong Bikeway. “If we are going to say that a bike path constitutes the need for a skybridge, well then we may as well go ahead and say yes to every single group that comes forward requesting a skybridge,” he said.

After making his argument, Anderson made a motion to recommend denying the request, seconded by Commissioner Chito Vela. However, following more discussion Vice Chair Fayez Kazi made a substitute motion to approve staff’s recommendation, seconded by Commissioner James Shieh.

“The question for me really is – is the bridge taking away from the activation of the street level, and I would argue that it’s not,” Kazi said. “It’s one other way to get people across.”

The substitute motion passed 7-2, with Anderson and Vela in opposition. Commissioners Angela Pineyro de Hoyos, Jeffrey Thompson and James Schissler were absent.

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

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