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Downtown 2039: New vision anticipates growth, mobility changes, cultural preservation

Monday, May 21, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Improved mobility, preservation of at-risk cultural assets and public space, and a dramatic expansion of residential and commercial activity are some of the biggest components of a new 21-year vision created for downtown Austin.

The Downtown Austin Alliance has started to roll out the results of a two-year process to create its first-ever visioning strategy for the area, which runs from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the still-developing South Central Waterfront District and from Interstate 35 to Lamar Boulevard. With more than 3,000 interviews from residents in 75 ZIP codes, the alliance created the plan to determine how full-time downtown residents, visitors and tourists view the area and how they want it to grow in the coming decades.

The vision includes four priorities: keeping downtown as the center of business and cultural activity, providing a selection of public spaces and attractions that a diverse range of visitors could enjoy, creating distinct neighborhoods and districts as the area continues to grow, and enabling the Austin area to embrace new transportation options.

Dewitt Peart, chief executive officer of the alliance, said consistent commercial and residential growth in the 10 years since the creation of the current Downtown Austin Plan created a need to map out what the city’s defining area will look like through 2039. The responses consistently showed a desire for the downtown area to remain accessible for all while maintaining commercial and cultural energy there.

“One of the things we heard over and over was that people wanted downtown to be accessible and affordable for them to enjoy,” Peart said. “There’s a lot of pride in downtown, and the idea of downtown Austin is the pride of the city and the region. That’s important to everyone in Central Texas. Downtown Austin has the potential to be like no other city in the country.”

Tied into the vision are a number of initiatives in varying states of completion that will play heavily in how the area evolves in the coming years. Among them are the development of the innovation district around the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas, a movement to create a trust to preserve cultural and historical assets, creation of the urban parks system tied to the Waller Creek project, building a multimodal transit network for the city, addressing the area’s homelessness problem and moving forward on the long-discussed “cut and cap” plan for I-35.

Peart said a recent capacity analysis of the downtown area suggested another 68 million square feet of commercial and residential use could be built – more than double the current 60 million square feet – before it hits capacity. That kind of growth means efforts to preserve cultural space and adding mobility options to reduce car usage will be key.

Also important will be the implementation of Mayor Steve Adler’s “downtown puzzle” proposal to use Hotel Occupancy Tax funds to pay for an ambitious array of projects including the possible expansion of the Austin Convention Center. Currently, the puzzle concept is being studied by the University of Texas to determine the scope of public-private partnerships that could be formed to achieve all of its related goals.

“The mayor’s puzzle is the funding strategy behind how you carry out these projects, that are a complex interwoven plan that needs to be carried out,” Peart said. “It’s a question on the sources and uses of funds. He looked at the funding opportunities, and that’s a part of the plan that we need to carry forward. Without it, it causes us to work more in a piecemeal fashion.”

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, whose Council district includes downtown Austin, said she was encouraged by the inclusiveness of the new vision for the area and its goal to offer opportunities for residents of all economic and cultural backgrounds.

She said City Council needs to move forward with a measure to convert the HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital of Austin in northeast downtown into an affordable housing development that would add variety to the housing mix in the area. Another possibility for affordable housing, Tovo said, could come from the coming vacancy of the downtown Municipal Court building on East Seventh Street.

Tovo said increasing safety, reducing aggressive panhandling, providing public restrooms and addressing other issues related to homelessness are some of the top concerns she wants to make progress on in the coming years.

“We welcome growth and changes while making sure to preserve the things about downtown that are truly special,” she said. “There’s an achievable balance because the public space and hike-and-bike trails along with the new activity happening are things that enhance each other. We’ll continue to attract newcomers and visitors if we preserve what’s wonderful about Austin.”

Peter Mullan, chief executive officer of the Waller Creek Conservancy, is a former executive with the group that created the High Line elevated park system in New York City. He said a clearly stated vision for an area or project lets all those involved know how they fit into the whole.

“Downtown Austin is a much more complicated braid of inputs, but with the High Line at the beginning the visioning exercise we showed people what the possibilities are and fleshed out the values and principles, and what the guideposts are along the way,” he said.

“It’s a little bit of a ‘push me, pull you’ situation because you need to have a sense of where everyone wants to go, and we all can get stuck in a tendency to just see things as the way they are or have been. It helps to develop a shared sense of what you want to have happen.”

This week Council is expected to vote on extending the timeline for the tax increment financing district that will provide the funding to pay for the series of parks proposed to be built along Waller Creek.

Looking beyond the park system, Mullan said he sees the preservation of the music venues in the Red River Cultural District and the eventual reimagining of the Palm School as some of the most important components of what happens to downtown Austin.

“The vision does well to identify a range of cultural assets that can be reinforced and augmented, like the music clubs that are a vital part of the city,” he said. “And when you look at Palm School, that’s a great opportunity to make something special out of what is already a great cultural landmark.”

Photo by Stuart Seeger (Flickr: Austin Texas Lake Front) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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