Bubba Likes It

Barton Springs and Riverside: A Separate Place

photograph by Rita Debellis
South Austin, Texas, 78704." A separate place. So says the sign above the new Threadgill's "World Headquarters," at the obtuse southern corner of Barton Springs Road and Riverside Drive. And we all know the piquant symbolism there, in Eddie Wilson's planting his new digs in that very spot, shadowed by the animate spirits haunting the former site of the Armadillo, right next door. But is it really South Austin? Or is it Central Austin? Or just downtown? Or should we make that Downtown?

Before it was any of these things, or a way of life, or even a ZIP code, the South Shore was little more than a mud flat, all too often awash with the Colorado's shanty-busting waters. Before the river was tamed into a lovely chain of lakes, developing within its lower valley was playing dice with God. So nobody did, at least with any eye toward permanence. West Riverside Drive, from Congress to the sunset, didn't exist until after Longhorn Dam was built, and didn't boast permanent development until after World War II. Barton Springs Road, on the other hand, is one of Austin's oldest streets, but not until fairly recent times was it built out so densely as to require house numbers. (In the 1926 city directory, fewer than a dozen large individual properties commanded its entire length.) South Austin was a separate place, all right, but it began well beyond the river's south bank, round about the hilltops graced by the Texas School for the Deaf and then St. Edward's University, out of flood range.

The times they have a-changed, and the geography of the river's edge with them, and now the old South Shore bottomlands are the pleasant parkland banks of Town Lake and the charming, amenity-filled district adjoining them. Well, sorta charming. Well, okay, you're right -- it's nine kinds of ugly down here. Without the historic logic and backbone of Downtown proper -- roomy and regular streets, semi-consistent period architecture, decades of overlapping day and night use -- Barton Springs and Riverside have become "corridors," and the blocks around their intersection have been fair game for the sort of Bad Urban Design we associate with more suburban locales. "I don't think anyone could say it's been developed properly," says architect Tom Hatch, who worked on the new Threadgill's. "Whatever it's supposed to be -- part of downtown or part of South Austin -- a bunch of mistakes have been made."

This sad truth is made sadder by the legacy of civic boosterism, eerily analogous to that behind today's buzzwords and brawls, that produced the misbegotten South Shore. Admittedly, even before anyone cared about downtown renewal or making Austin a city of the first class, the Barton Springs/Riverside corridors were wastelands with training wheels, dominated by tossed-off, who-cares development. There lay a welter of now-defunct used car lots, along with the utilitarian armory that became the Armadillo, the recycled Quonset hut that is still the City Coliseum, and EZ-Fab restaurants like Christie's and the Night Hawk, sited to maximize access from Congress Avenue. (It was not until the Night Hawk burned down and was rebuilt, back in the early 1980s, than anyone thought of it as a stylistic landmark, no matter how much they loved their Friscos.)

The 1959 opening of the Municipal Auditorium -- an Austin-boosting showpiece, the fruit of years of struggle that prophesied in alarming detail the Convention Center wars of our times -- was supposed to counter the junkyard mien of the district and spur a renewal of the South Shore. Even back then, these sorts of projects were thought to have magic powers to turn urban badlands into wonderlands without aid from either planners or investors. Naturally, it didn't work -- largely because vast tracts of usable street frontage were commandeered for the auditorium's parking lagoon -- and before long the renamed Lester E. Palmer Auditorium (after a city councilman of that era, who served alongside Emma Long, Ben White and Mayor Tom Miller) came to look just as junky and low-rent as its environs. (Apparently, no one thought it was ugly when they were building it. Or maybe those who did thought it better to keep their views to themselves. Instead, all three dailies of the time sounded hosannas about the "striking multi-hued roof.")

Then, during the general civic madness that we call the 1980s, Downtown jumped the river and infected the South Shore with boomeritis. We can date this precisely to a rain-soaked day in 1980, when the Mayor Formerly Known as Carole McClellan announced the imminent arrival of the Hyatt Regency in Austin. This was hailed as the kickoff success in the downtown-renewal effort of that era (the third in a series that continues today), forged with the not-too-cheap assistance of Austin's consultant du jour, the American City Corporation, and Mme. Rylander was mighty pleased. The Hyatt -- or, to be exact, its swimming pool -- went up on the bones of the old Christie's Seafood Restaurant, the locale of Austin's first legal mixed-drink sale. It was quickly followed by more high-rises -- the Embassy Suites (dubbed "the Low-att Regency" by one cynical commentator), One Texas Center (which, you no doubt know, is where the Armadillo used to stand), and Town Lake Center, the City-owned office cube once called the Sumiken Building, in honor of the Japanese developers who walked off with an absurd amount of your tax money after unloading it at the depth of the Bust.

The Bust halted Downtown's march on the South Shore, and, as elsewhere in Austin, the interregnum gave citizens and neighborhoods a chance to regroup and decide they liked South Austin just the way it was. And it's this relatively new sense of place that informs the "78704" bumper stickers and the sign at the new Threadgill's. Inevitably, now that the boom is back, Downtown boosters eye the South Shore as a potential addition to the Greater Central Business District. At the dawn of Downtown Renewal Part Four, with the birth of the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA), the Chamber-backed forces behind the downtown public improvement district (PID) -- the area within which large property owners pay for the care and feeding of the DAA -- wanted the PID to stretch south to include Riverside and Barton Springs, as well as beyond the Old Downtown in every other direction, in order to maximize the area's aggregate value and, concurrently, the DAA's budget. This idea died pretty quick, although the Hyatt, Embassy Suites and Statesman are full of assessment-paying members of the DAA. The next phase in that saga -- a proposed tax-increment-financing (TIF) district -- would (through fiscal mechanics better explained elsewhere) skim property tax money for "downtown improvements," most of which would likely not be visible from the South Shore of Town Lake. Nonetheless, if a TIF comes close to reality, it's a lead-pipe cinch that the district's proposed borders will jump as far across the river as the public will allow.

1. City Coliseum
2. Palmer Auditorium
3. Hyatt
4. Embassy Suites
5. Threadgill's World Headquarters
6. Old Night Hawk
7. Save Our Springs (One Texas Center)
8. Texas School for the Deaf

Which brings us back to Question Number One: Is this Downtown, or is it South Austin, or somewhere in between? A bunch of money is riding on the answer. Austin being what it is, there's plenty of sentiment on the South Shore toward Keeping the Suits the Hell Away From Here. As you might expect, Eddie Wilson is part of this claque. "I certainly think of it as Downtown, but Bubba thinks everything that washes up this side of the river is South Austin, and I like the way Bubba thinks," he says.

If being "Downtown" means being part of a Macro Austin-driven revitalization effort, Wilson says you can count him out. "It's hard for me to dislike the little trees on Congress (referring to the DAA's Christmas decorations), but show me a bunch of white guys in suits and I'll show you a reason to be suspicious," he says. "Even if I am Downtown, I still just want to be left alone, and even if Downtown is now the center of the universe, I still have to put up with a bunch of bullshit from the city. The only way I can recreate the Armadillo beer garden here is if I lie to the city and say it's `temporary.' Does that mean Downtown is temporary?"

Slaver and gleam over a prospective Downtown South also now extends well past the Barton Springs/Riverside corridors, toward the thriving South Congress strip. As a consequence, some have suggested that Inner South Austin needs its own renewal effort and attendant fiscal infrastructure. One of those entertaining the idea is Morrie Graves, the general manager of the Hyatt, which brought Downtown south in the first place. "We volunteered to be in the DMO [Downtown Management Organization, forerunner of the DAA]," he says, "but I'd be interested in a South Austin TIF or its equivalent, defining a new district with South Congress as its hub, especially if they needed major property owners (like the Hyatt) to participate. That area's really coming back, and it would be good if they got some help."

Graves, implicitly, and Hatch, explicitly, see danger in using Downtown models to solve the South Shore's planning problems. "We've already jumped too far across the river with Downtown-scale development," Hatch says. "I think there's plenty of redevelopment potential, but what we might want for downtown is the last thing we need south of the river. We should instead pay attention to the edges -- we could take all the wasted land on the edges of the Palmer parking lot, develop it at a friendly scale such as the [nearby] Dougherty [Arts Center] and have a vital street instead of a speedway." (Narrowing and slowing down traffic on South Congress, Hatch says, is even more important.)

Yet this is not the same as saying the South Shore is South Austin, a separate place. Rather, it postulates that Austin, long thought to be two concentric cities, may actually be three -- a place called Downtown, a place called the Outer City (a/k/a The Burbs) where Bubba lives, and something in between called the Central City. "I live and work in the best neighborhood in the world," says Wilson. "It stretches from here to the old Threadgill's. It's like a watermelon -- I live in the sweet juicy middle of Austin. It only gets bitter around the edges. As long as we protect the middle of town, we'll do fine."

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