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City charts progress, 90-day plans for Red River streetscape improvements

Tuesday, November 26, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

The Planning and Zoning Department has allocated $1.3 million in funding from its Great Streets program that will be used for a series of long-desired improvements to the streetscape of downtown’s Red River Cultural District.

A memo released last week by the Economic Development Department provides an update on work completed in the district in recent months, with the most attention given to cleaning and gating an alley off Red River Street between Seventh and Eighth streets that had become a trouble spot for drug use, prostitution and human waste.

In August, City Council directed the city manager to use the Great Streets money to make the improvements identified in a Council action approved more than two years prior.

The memo breaks the improvement areas into eight categories including the alleyway, sidewalks, lighting, trash receptacles, temporary art and landscaping. Many of those categories have work that will begin following in-progress studies from city departments on the cost and best processes for completing the work.

Economic Development Director Veronica Briseño said only a small amount of the $1.3 million has been used so far on the installation of trash receptacles around the district, which runs from East Sixth Street to 10th Street.

Cost estimates for the remaining improvements will be completed within 90 days, at which point staff will prioritize the work schedule with an emphasis on improving safety and accessibility and reducing disruption to the live music venues and other hospitality businesses clustered there.

Briseño said Council’s action in August pushed the many departments involved in the different projects to convene with one dedicated project manager from the Public Works Department and another from Austin Energy, bringing better organization to what had previously been a piecemeal process.

“There are so many departments involved and we had to get them to the table to start prioritizing projects to move quickly, with the priority of making sure the district is safe and there is good accessibility,” she said. “There are so many projects that I don’t know if everyone realized how much coordination was needed. The intention was good and there was certainly commitment to it and it was known it was a priority for the city and the community, but as we started going out we made sure we were doing this in a way that’s the most effective.”

A progress report slated for delivery in February will provide guidance on whether more funding is needed to complete the various projects, or will prioritize projects that will get completed if more funding isn’t available.

Briseño said she expects the district will see increased economic vitality once the projects are completed to make the area more safe and accessible for visitors.

“We get the importance of this district for people who both live in our city and visitors coming to experience our creative community, and we see the uniqueness of this district being a major economic generator for what makes Austin Austin,” she said. “We’re conscientious of that and timing and phasing the projects so there’s not a huge impact to those businesses and their economic vitality. That’s also another reason why it’s important to have one project manager from Public Works and one from Austin Energy, so we can connect those dots.”

Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose district includes much of downtown Austin including the RRCD, said the push to make improvements came in part from a summit held with area stakeholders this summer following a string of shootings and a stabbing in late July.

Tovo credited the work of the Red River Merchants Association, which was organized with the Economic Development Department’s help, for providing guidance to city staff on ways to improve the area and carry out the assorted public works projects.

“The merchants association idea is a solid one and the Red River group has been very effective since they’ve had a liaison with City Council,” she said. “That has helped them to advocate for the improvements to the safety and streetscape and placemaking, and given us a much more effective set of recommendations than we might have received otherwise.”

Photo by John Tornow made available through a Creative Commons license.

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