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More walkable Congress Avenue vision gaining traction

Friday, October 11, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

An innovative framework meant to help reinvigorate Congress Avenue downtown has earned the favor of the Urban Transportation Commission.

The framework was developed by the Pedestrian Advisory Council in May as a way to allow experimentation with pedestrian-friendly policies through trial and error.

“We don’t know what the future holds,” PAC Vice Chair Adam Greenfield said on Tuesday. “We didn’t feel empowered to put out a crystallized vision of what Congress should be; we want to give Congress the tools to show us where it can go.”

After a brief discussion, the commission gave its unanimous endorsement of that set of tools at Tuesday’s meeting.

The key recommendations include expanding sidewalk space to make room for people as well as public and private kiosks, creating a “festival streets” design between Seventh and 11th streets, and installing convenient public restroom locations about every other block.

Greenfield said the main idea is to promote a more pedestrian-friendly environment on Congress, somewhat similar to that of special events like the Texas Book Festival, the Texas Tribune Festival or the Austin Marathon.

While there are important differences, Greenfield said these concepts are meant to be an addition to the Congress Avenue Urban Design Initiative, a collaborative design effort by the city, the Downtown Austin Alliance and private consultants.

The Urban Design Initiative released a report with specific recommendations in March after a nearly two-year process of design development and public engagement.

“The (Pedestrian Advisory Council) was very supportive of the (Urban Design Initiative), the public process and many of the recommendations,” Greenfield said. “And we felt we had a number of very important recommendations to make on top of that.”

For example, Greenfield said, the Pedestrian Advisory Council felt the Urban Design Initiative failed to take full advantage of this “once-in-a-generation opportunity to make Congress an incredible place” with its recommendation to bring Congress down from six lanes to five.

In its current form, the six car lanes plus parking take up an entire 80 percent of the right of way along Congress. The Urban Design Initiative proposes to keep four travel lanes and one center turn lane, roughly doubling the portion of space allocated to sidewalks and halving that given to car travel lanes.

Given the chance both to revitalize the street and address climate change, however, Greenfield said the Pedestrian Advisory Council opted for a bigger change, eliminating the center turn lane and allocating the extra space to the sidewalks.

The added sidewalk space, he said, would make it possible to create “flexi-spaces” to serve any number of functions. He explained that in the place of some on-street parking spaces, these areas could support kiosks, small structures where people could purchase food or coffee, enjoy art or conduct group meetings. The city police could even set up a miniature station.

Greenfield said the kiosks could help enliven parts of Congress that are currently “pretty dead,” such as the block between Ninth and 10th streets, while also promoting local entrepreneurship and creating a more people-centric environment.

The festival streets configuration on Congress between Seventh and 11th streets would make the sidewalk even with travel lanes, creating a large plaza that could be closed to traffic during festivals and other events.

The Urban Design Initiative also recommended a festival streets design, Greenfield said, but only for the northernmost blocks directly south of the state Capitol. The advantage of a larger festival streets configuration is that it allows for ongoing experimentation to see if pedestrian-only use is sustainable on a larger scale or for longer periods of time, he said.

In order for these proposals to work, Greenfield said, Congress needs a lot more public restrooms. Currently there is one public restroom at the Old Bakery and Emporium at 10th Street and Congress and another at the state Capitol, both of which, he said, are “not obvious at all.”

Although there are some tensions between these proposals and the Urban Design Initiative recommendations, Greenfield said they have already found “some synergy” between the different ideas, particularly concerning expansion of the festival streets concept and the need for convenient public restrooms.

In a conversation with the Austin Monitor after the meeting, Greenfield added that their proposals have already found strong support from many stakeholders, including at least one Congress Avenue business owner.

The commission did push back on the Pedestrian Advisory Council’s resistance to adding public transit service along Congress.

At an open house with the Urban Design Initiative in May 2018, a large majority of respondents agreed with the need to add transit on Congress, which could be a smaller circulating vehicle connecting people between downtown and South Congress Avenue.

However, Greenfield said well-placed transit stops on adjacent streets are more desirable and maintain the avenue as a place for people.

“In our experience, there’s often a place in the heart of a downtown around the world that is just for people,” Greenfield said. “It’s a very different kind of space once you put a large vehicle up and down it.”

Urban Transportation Commissioner Mario Champion argued for a compromise, saying for many people, making the walk from the nearby transit hub Republic Square to Congress “is not really that viable.”

Greenfield said the proposal probably won’t show up at City Council until around February at the earliest, depending on the timeline of the ongoing Land Development Code rewrite process.

“This whole thing is about … trying out different periods of time, different configurations and seeing what works,” Greenfield said. “Because, as you know, most pedestrian malls around the country failed, the ones that were created in the 20th century. So we’re saying, let’s not assume that will work; let’s just try it in incremental steps and see how far we can go with it.”

Rendering courtesy of the city of Austin.

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