Mayor Sees Collective Effort in Revitalizing East Downtown

Jan 16, 2017

Just before the new year, Austin Mayor Steve Adler wrote a lengthy post on the city council message board, titled: “Possible solution to downtown puzzle.”

He later said it wasn't so much a puzzle, but that there were a lot of pieces involved. What he's referring to is a snaking spine of green space, commercial areas and academic space just west of I-35, in the easternmost part of downtown.

To trace the spine yourself, start at the Mexican-American Cultural Center and work your way up.

“It really runs from the convention center … up through Waller Creek … the cultural district, Red River, up to the new medical school and the Brackenridge Hospital site,” said Dewitt Peart, head of the Downtown Austin Alliance.

Peart said inspiration for focusing on this part of the city came from a visit to Atlanta he took last year with Texas state Sen. Kirk Watson. The city has what it calls Technology Square, a part of downtown that connects academic buildings to other office, retail and green space. It’s called an “innovation district,” with the idea that great minds in close proximity can feed off one another, boosting a city’s economy.

“In Austin, what we saw was the assets we have in place currently are far better than anything Atlanta had to begin with,” says Peart. “We have the ingredients here. We have a knowledge-based economy. We have the entrepreneurial spirit. We’ve got the tourism industry. We’ve got a major research university.”

Adler said he sees his role as bringing these entities to the same table.

“It became apparent to me that we ought to be considering these things all together because some of the challenges faced by some of these folks to achieve real important missions for the city, they may not be able to do it alone,” he said. “But in association with this collective effort, I think we may get some things done that we couldn’t otherwise have gotten done.”

Hence, his new year’s wish list for east downtown:

Waller Creek Linear Park
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News

The mayor wants to revitalize small parks that follow Waller Creek west of I-35, which is being managed by the Waller Creek Conservancy. This includes Palm Park at 3rd and Red River streets and Waterloo Park at 12th and Red River streets. 

The Waller Creek Conservancy envisions the park as an entrance to the creek trail:

An artist's rendering of a future Palm Park.
Credit Courtesy of the Waller Creek Conservancy
Austin Resource Center for the Homeless
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News

The mayor has made getting people off Austin’s streets something of a pet project. (Just last week, the city received a $5.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide services to homeless young people.)

Adler said he would like to keep the ARCH downtown, but expand it to fit the needs of the community. A call to Front Steps, which oversees the shelter, went unreturned.

Lowering of I-35 Decks

Adler said he'd also like to move ahead with a proposed design to lower decks of I-35 in parts of downtown. The design also has support from Sen. Watson.

The Texas Department of Transportation has produced several aerial renderings of what a capped interstate might look like:

An artist's rendering of how I-35 might look.
Credit Courtesy of the Texas Department of Transportation
The Mexican-American Cultural Center

In December, city council approved $300,000 to devise a master plan for the MACC, but, as Adler said, there is “no real funding source for actually implementing that plan.”

Possible Convention Center Expansion
Credit Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News

While the city council has spent the past year batting around the idea of expanding the city’s convention center, there’s been no real movement on the question. The expansion, if approved, is expected to cost anywhere from $400 million to $600 million.

Last fall, the city of Austin hosted meetings with the public to present mockups of an expanded convention center:

An artist's rendering of a potential new convention center.
Credit Courtesy City of Austin

This story was produced as part of KUT's reporting partnership with the Austin Monitor.