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In time for spring, Living Streets initiative making it easier to throw a block party

Wednesday, March 23, 2022 by Kali Bramble

Just in time for spring, the Transportation Department stopped by the City Council Mobility Committee meeting to share progress on the Living Streets initiative passed by Council last October.

The Living Streets program encourages the use of city streets as recreational space by closing residential blocks to car traffic. Once implemented, residents will be able to apply for permits allowing three varying designations, including continuous partial closures (Healthy Streets), recurring complete closures (Play Streets) and daylong closures reserved for single events (block parties).

In the months since the initiative’s passage, staffers have been hard at work gathering feedback and researching parallel city programs to identify areas for improvement. Of primary concern has been an effort to make the permitting process more accessible to those with less time and fewer resources at hand.

“We’ve had a lot of success initiating a barrier loaning program, so that residents don’t have to fund this kind of equipment, which can be upwards of $400,” Transportation Department Assistant Director Jim Dale said. “We’re doing our best to balance safety with accessibility and ease of implementation.”

Block party permits currently require a $50 application fee and signatures of approval from 80 percent of residents, as well as in-person notification of all who live within the street closure. While these stipulations are standard among block party programs in other cities, the department is interested to see if lowering fees and approval requirements might cast a larger net among Austin’s neighborhoods.

Department staff also proposed an expansion of land uses allowed along block party enclosures, which are currently limited to streets containing single-family homes and duplexes. To broaden access, the Transportation Department recommended amending city code to allow for schools, multifamily residential buildings and places of worship to be included in future approval zones.

The program’s block party branch is the only one up and running so far, supported by permitting infrastructure and funding that date back to 2014. The younger Healthy Streets and Play Streets programs are still in formative stages, with the successes of Healthy Streets’ 2020 pilot program remaining on Bouldin Avenue and Avenue G.

Within the next six months, the Transportation Department hopes to roll out a Living Streets web page that will consolidate available information, including a high-level schedule of the program’s next steps. In the future, the website will guide residents through the application process for all three categories of Living Streets permits. In the meantime, Dale acknowledged the challenge will be identifying a funding source to provide adequate resources.

“We know there’s a strong desire in the community for this program, but it’s going to take some time,” he said. “Part of the challenge is that our resources are stretched thin on things like Project Connect and Vision Zero initiatives … but once we figure out how to resource this program, we will go fast.”

In coming months, staffers will continue gathering feedback and assessing budgeting needs, with the possibility of securing some initial funding in Fiscal Year 2023. Those eager to jump in and enjoy the coming spring weather can learn more about organizing a block party in their own neighborhood here.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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