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City hopes 10-foot fence will deter crime on Red River

Friday, January 18, 2019 by Jack Craver

The city of Austin is inching toward a “short-term” solution to a downtown alleyway that police and business owners say has become a magnet for criminal activity.

Drug dealing, prostitution and human waste are frequent issues in the alley between Beerland and the old Sidewinder club on the 700 block of Red River Street, Nicole Klepadlo of the city’s Economic Development Department told members of the Downtown Commission Wednesday evening. The alley runs between Red River and Waller Creek, which has long been host to encampments for homeless people.

The police department tried to fix the issue by putting in place more lighting, which actually made the problem worse, said Klepadlo. Eventually, area merchants and the city agreed that the best immediate solution would be to simply shut the alley down by putting in place a 10-foot fence at each end.

Members of the commission sympathized with the concerns expressed about the alley and approved a recommendation in support of the plan. However, they acknowledged that a fence was simply a way to deal with the symptoms of a much deeper problem.

“Getting them out of the neighborhood doesn’t really help the next neighborhood they move into,” said Commissioner Christopher Lehman.

Other commissioners wondered whether there was a way to “activate” the alleyway, turning it into a public space or part of the adjacent private properties in a way that would diminish its appeal as a crime hub.

Also on the radar are the ongoing plans to revitalize the creek with the Waller Creek Chain of Parks, which envisions a system of trails connecting a series of small parks along the creek, from Waterloo Park (between 12th and 15th streets) to Lady Bird Lake. Making the creek into a pleasant, high-trafficked recreation spot may help to drive out crime.

Cody Cowan, the president of the Red River Merchants Association, said that the fence was an important short-term step to address the alley, which he said had become a “magnet and an anchor for crime downtown.” He stressed, however, that it was only one part of the necessary response to a major health and safety crisis downtown.

“As somebody who has worked on Red River for 20 years, I can tell you that I have never seen a bigger and scarier challenge,” he said.

The large number of homeless people in the area, many of whom live in the Waller Creek bed, attract criminal organizations that seek to take advantage of them, Cowan said. Those coming downtown for live music are also vulnerable to what he described as aggressive professional criminals.

“These people don’t stand a chance, these businesses don’t stand a chance and certainly the homeless don’t stand a chance,” he said.

Obviously, the fence won’t get rid of the underlying problems, he said. At the very least, however, he said, “is to take them out of the highest-trafficked areas for tourism.”

The plans for the fence have been in the works for over a year. The original contractor estimated that it would take six to 12 weeks to get the fence in place. However, that contractor withdrew after the fire department demanded that the fence have a “Knox” lock in place that it could open in case of an emergency.

It will likely be another several months before the fence is installed, said Klepadlo. The Economic Development Department has $100,000 earmarked for the project. If it costs more than that, the department would likely have to seek approval for additional funding from City Council.

“It’s shocking how long it takes to do something like this,” commented Commissioner Rich DePalma.

A motion to recommend the plan passed with all commissioners in favor, except for Lehman, who abstained.

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL].

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