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Staff unveils long-awaited Palm District draft plan

Wednesday, October 26, 2022 by Nina Hernandez

City staff members presented the draft version of the long-awaited Palm District Plan to the Environmental Commission last week.

City Council commissioned the plan in 2019 as it sparred with Travis County over the future of the county-owned Palm School site. The resolution instructed city staff to engage with the public and learn the community’s vision for the future of the historically Mexican American district, which also includes Waller Creek, Red River Cultural District, Rainey Street, the Austin Convention Center and the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center.

This is the first time the Environmental Commission has been updated on the plan’s progress since 2019, because the process was delayed due to the pandemic. Staffers are seeking input on the public review draft that was released Oct. 13.

In addition to the Palm School, the planning has been informed by several other initiatives playing out in the area, including Rainey Street District Fund, Fifth Street Mexican American Heritage Corridor, the convention center expansion and the implementation of Project Connect.

The public engagement period, which started in 2021 and continued into this year, included 3,600 visits to the public engagement web page, 700 survey responses, targeted East Austin outreach and several hundred forum and event participants. Fifty-five percent of the individuals surveyed identify as Hispanic or Latino.

“Throughout this process we have approached this work through an equity lens and we will continue to be guided by key equity goals as we move toward implementation,” said Stevie Greathouse, program manager for the Planning and Zoning Department.

Based on the stakeholder input, the design team generated three potential scenarios for the future development of the district: live, work and play. The live scenario focuses on encouraging mixed-income housing through density programs. The work scenario would promote office and mixed-use development in an effort to encourage activity throughout the daytime and evening hours. Finally, the play scenario would leverage green space in the district to go along with the reimagining of nearby Waller Creek.

Staff conducted a scenarios survey, which described the potential scenarios and asked respondents to rank them in order of preference.

“Most respondents gravitated in favor of the live scenario, and emphasized a desire for more housing in the future growth of the Palm District, while also supporting enhanced cultural uses and environmental and recreational uses in the district as well,” Greathouse said.

The live scenario calls for increasing supportive services like pharmacies, downtown-scaled grocery stores, dine-in casual and fast-casual restaurants, coffee shops and other cultural activities. The city would identify opportunities for new housing, supportive retail and other services on publicly owned land and sites currently used for surface or structured parking. The scenario also suggests a circular transit route that would improve connectivity throughout the district.

Comments on the draft plan are due Oct. 28. Staff will present a recommended draft plan to the Planning Commission on Nov. 8 and present it to City Council Dec. 1. If approved, the city will move forward with implementation in 2023.

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