Friday, November 22, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

MLK crossing compromises Capitol Complex pedestrian concept

The Texas Capitol Complex is now well into the first phase of construction. Funding for the second of three phases was allocated during this year’s legislative session.

The project lays out a grand vision of a “cultural gateway” linking the Texas Capitol to Bullock Texas State History Museum via a public pedestrian mall containing an amphitheater, street-level cafes, shady oak trees, and playscapes.

Paul Bielamowicz, who is managing the project with Page Architects, told the Downtown Commission on Wednesday that each element has been designed to “activate” the pedestrian mall with people as much as possible. With Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard as the mall’s northern border, though, Bielamowicz said it is going to be a challenge to achieve the broader vision of connecting the complex to the University of Texas and surrounding destinations.

Ideally, Bielamowicz explained, Congress Avenue north of the Capitol could act as a pedestrian-friendly museum district. Just north of the state history museum is the Blanton Museum of Art which then connects to Speedway, a broad pedestrian corridor through the university campus.

The Blanton Museum received a $20 million grant from the Moody Foundation of Galveston earlier this year to transform its exterior spaces to hold more public events and better connect the museum to surrounding areas.

When the Capitol Complex is complete, Bielamowicz said, there will be a 15-block continuous pedestrian space from 11th Street to 26th Street. But with Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard right in the middle, he said the city and the state are going to need to put their heads together to decide what to do with that intersection, recognizing the potential for a lot of pedestrian traffic there.

John Raff, deputy executive director over facilities design and construction with the Texas Facilities Commission, suggested that the city add traffic calming devices similar to what is being used in the Capitol project.

The project is mostly a pedestrian space, but there will be cars crossing the pedestrian mall at 16th and 18th streets. To preserve the serene pedestrian experience, the intersections are going to feature “speed tables” where cars will be brought up to the level of the pedestrian mall instead of having pedestrians step down a curb onto the street level.

“We are going to have cars crossing,” Bielamowicz said. “However, we wanted it to feel like cars crossing a pedestrian space, not pedestrians stepping down a curb into a vehicular space.”

Raff said that the city could consider adding speed tables on a larger scale to the intersection at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, making it safer to cross over from the Capitol Complex onto the university campus. Raff said the intersection is going to be particularly challenging to manage because of its width from east to west as opposed to having a more narrow crosswalk to help channel people across the street.

Ultimately, the city will have to decide what to do with the crossing. One option the commission discussed briefly would be to tunnel car traffic under the pedestrian crossing to keep people and cars separated. Raff said that would be an option for the city to consider but that it would be beyond the scope of the state Facilities Commission.

Photo by Ryan Thornton.

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Downtown Commission: The Downtown Commission serves as a steward for the Downtown Austin Plan and advises the Austin City Council on policies and projects that impact downtown.

Texas State Capitol

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