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Chad Swiatecki is a 20-year journalist who relocated to Austin from his home state of Michigan in 2008. He most enjoys covering the intersection of arts, business and local/state politics. He has written for Rolling Stone, Spin, New York Daily News, Texas Monthly, Austin American-Statesman and many other regional and national outlets.
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Stream Realty reveals plans for reinventing ‘dirty Sixth’
If the downtown Sixth Street entertainment district is going to achieve a successful transformation in the coming years, the first real glimpse of its future will come from the improvements planned for the north side of the two blocks between Neches and Sabine streets. Dallas-based Stream Realty Partners owns an uninterrupted stretch of properties there – part of a portfolio of more than 30 in the district – and plans to bring offices, hotels, restaurants and entertainment uses to an area that has long been dominated by nighttime and weekend drinking.
The company’s three-year purchasing spree and its vision for the area are coming public at an opportune time when city and business leaders are eager to change the character of the district. In the past year a series of late-night shootings outside of bars and nightclubs have injured more than two dozen people and resulted in two deaths.
The city’s ongoing Safer Sixth Street initiative is focused on increasing safety and getting illegal guns off the street, and bringing more daytime and early evening uses to the 80-plus storefronts.
In a presentation earlier this month at the Historic Landmark Commission, attorney Richard Suttle said the hope is to eventually transform sections of the district with wider festival sidewalks, only three lanes of traffic and the construction of four- and five-story buildings 15 feet back from some of the historic facades of the properties Stream has purchased.
The first significant policy steps toward making any of those schemes possible will likely take place in the coming weeks when Stream asks City Council to initiate a code amendment that would raise the building height limit from 45 feet so new construction can increase to the limits of the Capital View Corridors that intersect with its ownership.
Caitlyn Ryan, Stream’s senior vice president and head of its Austin office, said the height increase is essential for the redevelopment to take place in a way that preserves the mix of historic structures while making those properties profitable without operating as high-volume shot bars. Ryan said there isn’t a definitive budget yet for all of the company’s Sixth Street plans, though some of its purchases elsewhere in the district will be re-leased to focus on restaurants and music venues.
“For any of this to happen, we need that code amendment to get initiated because the only way we pay for an increased streetscape is for us to get some relief on height,” she told the Austin Monitor. “When that happens we can start attacking this, because I think that’s what we all want to see. We want to see a little more sidewalk cafe, a little bit more walkability, a little bit safer areas for people to bike and just exist in that area.”
Members of the Historic Landmark Commission had mixed feelings about the plans Suttle shared. While they approved of the idea to remake the area into something other than a hot spot that’s closed to traffic on weekend evenings to accommodate crowds of bar patrons, they expressed concern over what would happen to historically significant structures.
“We don’t want a wholesale change of how it looks, but what you can do is you step back behind the parapet of the historical building, step back 15 feet, and then go up a little bit. You don’t try to copy the architecture because that looks like facade-ism. But you can do it in such a way that the historical fabric is kept,” Suttle told the Monitor.
“You’ve got some older buildings that may or may not have some architectural or historical significance, but over time, the owners have let the building behind the facade completely crumble away. The only thing that’s there is really the facade. And then you have some buildings that were built in recent history, not very good copies of replicas and scale of old buildings, but there’s nothing significant about them.”
Suttle’s work on behalf of Stream has put him in regular contact with City Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose district includes much of downtown Austin. Those talks haven’t progressed to a point where the code amendment and any other related actions have made it onto a Council agenda.
Tovo has said she supports the goal of bringing a mix of different businesses and uses to the entertainment district, and in general supports Stream’s goals but wants to take special care to not damage the character of historically significant properties.
“It is absolutely important to me that we work to encourage a diversity of uses, and to encourage more safety in a way that also respects the fact that this is a recognized historic district that enjoys certain protections,” Tovo said. “There are opportunities to look at changes that would allow for some of that new development to come in without altering the historic nature of that area. I’m willing to have that conversation. But it seems like a tough idea if we’re talking about kind of demolishing historic buildings that are in place to make room for that redevelopment.”
Stream’s isn’t the first attempt to reimagine the often-maligned district.
In 2013 and 2014 the city raised roughly $20 million as part of a larger bond proposal that would have paid for still-needed sidewalk, sewer and electrical improvements throughout the area, as well as a reconstruction of the streetscape in a manner that closely resembles what Stream has proposed. That project never moved past the initial design phase, though Tovo and other city leaders recall reviewing it and see it as a possible starting point for a renewed reimagining of the area.
Going further back to 2003, a group of Sixth Street business owners completed a study of the economics and future prospects for the street, with the goal of moving away from what was then seen as an overabundance of single-serving “shot” bars.
Molly Alexander, executive director of the Downtown Austin Alliance Foundation, helped shepherd that study forward. The most significant result of the effort was the creation of a pair of public improvement districts that included Sixth Street, but no grand reinvention took place.
Alexander said part of the multi-decade inertia of the area came from a lack of critical mass of property ownership, with an assortment of multigenerational family owners unable to come to consensus on a new identity and how to achieve it. With Stream stepping in, she said the company may be the long-needed “patient capital” entity to bring about significant change.
“You don’t buy this kind of real estate anywhere, so I think they recognized clearly that they had a real opportunity,” she said. “What I have found in working with real estate companies and others is you have to have that patient capital and tenacity, because it was not an easy feat for them to come in over several years and acquire and put together over 60 percent of the street.”
Alexander noted that the deteriorating infrastructure of the district on top of its safety concerns has tarnished an area that for years has been one of Austin’s calling cards.
“This street is failing. It’s got an F when it comes to water, wastewater, street construction. There’s places on the street that go down two and three feet. As a community we have washed our hands of East Sixth Street,” she said. “It’s our international brand and we’ve not reinvested in it. We’ve done a lot of community planning around it, but this is an opportunity to say, how can we help, because we deserve better.”
Photo made available through a Creative Commons license. This story has been changed since publication to correct a typo.
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Posted In: Planning, District 9
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