[The views and thoughts expressed here are my own and do not represent any other members of the Austin Music Commission, City Councilwoman Sheryl Cole's office or those of any other individuals other than myself. Did I get that right?]
Early this month, I attended my first Austin Music Commission meeting. One of our guest speakers was a representative from the Downtown Austin Plan and it was great to hear directly from the City on the plans for Austin's central district. As the youngest member to be appointed by the City Council, it’s probably fair to say that my two years in Austin post-UT don’t make me an expert on Austin from a historical standpoint. But there are all sorts of Austinites ready and willing to give you their thoughts on where Austin was in the ‘60s, ‘70s’ and ‘80s, even ‘90s. I’m here to write about the future.
I may be green, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say I am more than capable of making an astute observation or two. Last night on my plane home from DC, I re-read the DAP's Executive Summary for the umpteenth time and, per usual, something different stands out upon every read. Unfortunately, that thing is usually fairly negative. Mostly because I feel like there’s a huge disconnect between what is being said and what needs to happen. The recent talk about making fees for metered parking spots applicable until midnight, Saturdays included, is a prime example when you consider the city’s supposed status as the “Live Music Capital of the World.”
So here’s what stood out last night: on page 11 of the 27-page executive summary – an extremely well-written guide to the mission and purpose of the DAP albeit still a work in progress – I flagged one particular bullet point:
“The construction of the Interstate Highway system of IH 35, cutting through the urban core in the 1960s contributed to the economic development of the city and the nation, but tore the fabric of the eastern edge of Downtown, creating economic barriers and racial divisions with East Austin. The visual and physical effect of the elevated freeway is still strongly felt.”
The first thing that came to mind after reading the stanza was, “WELL DUH!”
But the second thing that came to mind was, “wow, I’m amazed they even admitted that much.” They being the proverbial powers that be…the planning commission, the Council, the City.
It’s said that the first step to remediating a negative situation is to admit a problem exist. I’d say that even though this is only one bullet, in a document with hundreds of them, this is a good start. Yes, there is a huge problem with the fabric of East Austin in relation to Downtown.
But stating that is not enough. Let me point out the fact that the DAP identifies Austin as the region east of Lamar Boulevard, south of MLK Boulevard (maintaining the City’s seldom-discussed hands-off approach to UT-Austin’s imprint in the Central part of the City), north of Lady Bird Lake and east of IH 35.
Me thinks they should consider the fact that if you’re just one block east of IH 35 on any street between Cesar Chavez and 12th Street, you’re no further from Downtown than if you’re at Waterloo Records off Lamar, yet one is constituted as “downtown” while the other is not.
A primary problem with improving the fabric of the eastern edges of Downtown Austin is that by excluding streets geographically nearer to the Capital and Congress Avenue within the DAP they are unapologetically earmarking a substantial amount of City focus, energy, money, public infrastructure and time away from addressing that fabric at all.
It’s almost as if the City has picked up a quilt in need of a good sew and decided it doesn’t like the color or pattern of the right edge so instead of fixing it with the thread and needle, they’ll simply tuck that part under the bed and highlight the other part of the quilt.
Don’t get me wrong; I understand why a person could justify the Lamar-to-IH 35 limitations. The Interstate is quite an urban barrier. But why even write that line about the highway “creating economic barriers and racial divisions with East Austin” if all you’re going to do is play right into them.
It just doesn’t make sense.
My suggestion would be that the City create an amendment to the DAP that specifically addresses the two blocks east of IH 35 – giving it equitable proximity to Congress Avenue as Lamar Boulevard – and spanning from Cesar Chavez to 15th Street. This plan should include the currently-underway redevelopment and revitalization of the public realm (and parking areas) underneath the interstate (more than just fancy lights at that).
This plan should also serve as a bridge between the DAP and East Austin’s expansive publicly-funded infrastructure improvement projects and private investments that have already made East Austin a bastion of nightlife for ‘hipsters’ while looping in the plan for the Metrorail, especially the incredibly-underutilized station located along the East 4th and 5th Streets leading up to the Convention Center.
Such a plan would not only be fair to the City overall, but also to the current and future residents of East Austin who are being bastardized out of Downtown Austin because of an interstate built decades ago that we’d all love to see used less frequently anyway. This is particularly true when considering another important element listed in the DAP executive summary, which is to offer “a multi-modal transportation system that is convenient, sustainable, affordable and a viable alternative to the automobile.”
Just a thought. More on this later…