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Safer Sixth Street push includes call to rezone portions of entertainment district

Tuesday, November 30, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

City staffers expect to deliver recommendations early next month for a pilot program intended to make the Sixth Street entertainment district safer by gradually changing the mix of business and cultural activities there.

A recent news report revealed some details of the pilot, saying it would target the 200 and 500 blocks of East Sixth Street for sidewalk activations and street activities during traffic closures to “change the character” of the street, according to drafts of city documents.

The area, which has long been a draw for late-night bargoers, came under scrutiny this summer after a mass shooting that killed one person and injured more than a dozen others. The Austin Police Department has taken steps to combat violent crime while also improving access and staging for emergency services to respond to incidents there.

While that program takes shape, business leaders are seeking to rezone portions of the district, increase building heights and bring a wider mix of uses to the area besides bars and restaurants that draw much of their business after dark.

Dewitt Peart, president and CEO of the Downtown Austin Alliance, told the Austin Monitor that rezoning approvals need to be included with improved sidewalks and lighting as well as the public safety push to address crime in the area.

“All of those pieces really play into enhancing the variety of uses on the street but also allowing for some newer development to occur that would bring a different level of activity at different days and times to bring more variety to the street,” he said, noting recent discussions with property and business owners in the area.

“It’s important to create the right zoning and variances to allow for newer product to be created, allow for some taller buildings on the street, which you can do on some of those blocks. That allows those private developments to also have sidewalks, lighting and other elements to be improved at the same time and bring some parking in buildings that allows more access and creates more attraction to the area during the day.”

Brian Block, the city’s manager of entertainment services, told the Monitor that there is no timetable for launching the pilot program. He said early feedback from business owners has shown significant interest in adding variety into the area to lessen the dependence on alcohol sales as the primary driver of revenue.

“There definitely seems to be an overwhelming desire to see Sixth Street transition and become in some ways more of what it used to be in terms of more diversity of activities and a more vibrant district where everyone feels safe and welcome,” he said. “The stakeholders think it’s feasible to move in that direction and move on that path. No one thinks it is going to happen overnight, but it didn’t become this way overnight … with an articulated vision and elements of a plan sustained over time, folks think we can get there.”

An October memo updated Council on the progress of a July resolution calling for improving the safety of East Sixth Street and making it more hospitable for daytime use.

Block said “gradual changes” are expected in the character and makeup of the district once the city begins to make public works improvements and encourage more outdoor activity on sidewalks in addition to addressing safety concerns.

“With the private sector business and property owners and relevant associations we can provide programs that allow them to do things, but they’ll need to be the ones to take advantage of that and implement them. Diversifying the uses will come from them. There’s been lots of property acquisition along the 200, 500 and 600 blocks, and what kind of uses go on there will be determined by those private owners if they want to bring new activities into the public space.”

August Harris, chair of the Downtown Commission, told the Monitor that the city and business community need to be thoughtful about what exactly they want to see happen in the district that has long been a draw for visitors.

“This is something the community has grappled with for years, and it is easier said than done. One of the draws of Austin has always been the entertainment district itself, and as you go to some different uses down there, does that change that business and marketing dynamic because it would no longer be an entertainment district and may become just another mixed-use district. There are consequences to this,” he said.

“There have been noble thoughts and attempts toward changing the character of Sixth Street, but it is much harder and there are myriad additional impacts that aren’t well thought out. There’s a nostalgic attitude toward something that was never there.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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