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Staff suggests plaza program either be well-funded or be forgotten

Monday, June 24, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

After eight months of study, including a two-month extension, the Planning and Zoning Department has finalized its recommendations for a potential public plaza program to make it easier and cheaper for applicants and city departments to create temporary public plazas. These plazas are open public areas for general recreation that may also dedicate space for food and beverage carts, retail and cultural events

City Council directed the city manager to explore such a program in October 2018, citing the drawn-out and disjointed effort to create the Nightwing Plaza at Barton Springs Road and South Congress Avenue.

Despite the hundreds of staff hours spent over years of analyzing that plaza, Council Member Kathie Tovo said that the convoluted process nearly led to the space being taken over for private purposes.

“I think it’s in the absolute best interest of the city to encourage that our public plazas really be used in vibrant ways, in ways that serve the whole community, in public ways, and not really become a sort of an extra space of a private business,” she said.

Jorge Rousselin, division manager of urban design in the Planning and Zoning Department, told Council in October that successful plazas typically involve both public and private property owners managing a setting in which there’s “not a particular property owner that is benefiting from the public plaza, but the public as a whole.”

The recommendations released last week reiterate the benefits of public-private partnerships to manage individual plazas. The city needs a “comprehensive, professional, and ambitious approach to public space management,” the report states, but should only pursue the program if enough money and staff can be allocated to that end.

According to its research of similar programs in New York City, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Seattle, the planning department estimates that the first temporary plaza could cost anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars over a year. In the long term, it notes that cities with fully developed programs, like New York, work with annual budgets in the millions.

Planning and Zoning Department staff recommend offsetting those costs through partnerships with private businesses, nonprofit groups or philanthropic organizations. When selecting potential partners, the department suggests partnering with organizations that are able to demonstrate existing community ties.

To make it easier for organizations to initiate potential partnerships, the Planning and Zoning Department outlines the need to streamline the application and permitting processes to save effort, time and money. For example, while the city currently requires separate permits to allocate right of way from vehicular to pedestrian use and to legitimize event programming, it could create a new simplified permit covering both purposes.

The report identifies the Austin Transportation Department as the best candidate to lead and launch a plaza program. If Council approved, the Transportation Department would initiate a six-month development phase in collaboration with the Planning and Zoning Department and the departments of Public Works and Economic Development.

At the end of the development phase, Transportation would bring a budget and staff proposal to Council before beginning a pilot project consisting of at least one yearlong plaza.

Depending on the intensity of use, and any impacts on traffic, safety, and nearby businesses and residents, staff will evaluate temporary plazas and consider them for permanent adoption at the end of their yearlong pilot periods.

Based on the city’s Strategic Direction 2023, staff will weigh the costs of each plaza against their value in promoting economic opportunity and affordability, mobility, safety, health and culture.

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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