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UTC endorses second convention center skybridge

Tuesday, May 16, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

Plans for another new skybridge in downtown Austin have cleared the second of three challenges set forth last month by a skeptical Planning Commission.

On May 9, the proposal scored the support of the Urban Transportation Commission after that body heard how the bridge is aimed at reducing “congestion” in a unique corner of downtown.

Attorney Nikelle Meade, representing the applicant, Austin Convention Enterprises Inc., explained that the bridge would connect the Hilton Austin to the Austin Convention Center across East Fourth Street. The structure would straddle both the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Downtown Station and a section of the Lance Armstrong Bikeway and provide conventiongoers a conflict-free detour around the often busy multimodal street below.

“We see this as a solution – not the solution – but a solution to reduce some of that congestion,” she told the commission.

In April, the Planning Commission punted the proposal to the Downtown Commission, the Design Commission and the UTC. On Tuesday night, Meade said the Downtown Commission had unanimously endorsed it and that the Design Commission will take it up on May 22.

One source of the Planning Commission’s reluctance to move forward is the 2011 Downtown Austin Plan which states that, in order to protect the vitality of street life, “Sky-bridges that cross public rights-of way and interrupt the visual and spacial integrity of the street should not be permitted. Sky-bridges are appropriate only across public alleys or within private properties.”

However, Meade argued that the confluence of trains, bicycles and pedestrians between two venues that see huge crowds during events such as South by Southwest creates a unique “pinch-point” that she said “is really created by us trying to have all of these mobility options in one spot, but there really isn’t a better spot in downtown to place them.”

Meade also said that Capital Metro’s expansion of the MetroRail station, along with plans to revitalize neighboring Brush Square and the opening of a street-level restaurant at the Hilton, will ensure that the street remains active.

“We really believe the streetscape is being take care of,” she told the commissioners. “It’s not being forgotten. It’s being significantly enhanced.”

The open-air covered skybridge would be the second high-flying pedestrian connection between the convention center and a nearby hotel. Work on a new bridge from the Fairmont Hotel on Cesar Chavez Street is expected to wrap up this month. Meade said that both bridges will allow conventiongoers to more easily attend meetings in all three venues.

Ultimately, Commissioner J.D. Gins opted to move to recommend that City Council give its approval to the aerial encroachment over the public right-of-way. Upon Commissioner Mario Champion’s concerns that the 6-foot-5-inch-wide walkway would not be able to accommodate peak volumes, the motion was written to include a further recommendation to explore additional options to maximize capacity.

Commissioner Daniel Hennessey announced his plans to abstain on the vote, citing his concerns that the proposal had less to do with transportation than it did with a connection between two buildings.

He added, “I don’t think there’s a safety issue there now. I suspect there won’t be in the future with the expanded station. I don’t think this connection alleviates any issues that may or may not exist.”

A dubious Gins pressed him, asking, “You don’t think there’s a safety issue when we have a mob scene on the train platform?”

Hennessey explained that he looked into collision reports on that block and found only three reports since 2010. Two of them, he said, involved vehicles crashing into parked cars.

“I certainly understand that the Downtown Station presents a unique circumstance here, but I would hope that the station design would accommodate for that.”

Commissioner Kelly Davis pondered whether the construction of the bridge would be premature given the ongoing development of plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the convention center. The center’s director, Mark Tester, told her that the bridge would be a short-term Band-Aid to keep convention customers coming back until the expansion is complete, pending Council approval, by 2023.

“This will help bridge us to the expansion,” Tester said wryly.

In the end, the commission approved the motion on a 7-0-2 vote. Gins and Champion both supported the measure and were joined by commissioners D’Ann Johnson, Eric Rangel, Alex Reyna, Beverly Silas and Cynthia Weatherby. Hennessey and Davis both abstained. Commissioner Chris Hosek was not at the meeting.

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

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