Downtown's Promise



San Francisco architect Charles M. Davis (above) returned to Austin last week as R/UDAT team leader to ponder downtown revitalization.

In medieval Italy, the various city-states had to borrow their judges from other cities, because local politics were so fractured and violent that no actual citizen could be trusted to render impartial judgment upon his neighbors. They called this the Podesta. We call it the R/UDAT. And the Austin Convention Center, which among its weird melange of cultural references already has a Rotunda and Palazzo and Rialto, became on September 24 the venue for our modern-day Podesta. With much ceremony, Austin re-welcomed the Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT), sent by the American Institute of Architects, that in 1991 gave a name and some shape to the beast called "downtown revitalization." The fact that the original R/UDAT team came back -- which normally does not happen -- speaks to the promise attached to Austin by urban professionals and aficionados throughout America. It also speaks to how little, ultimately, the first R/UDAT visit actually accomplished.

Indeed, the "R/UDAT Revisited" confab furthered the sense that Austin is stuck in a tape loop. When they first came, we were arguing about light rail, and what to do with the Convention Center, and redeveloping Palmer Auditorium, and converting downtown streets back to two-way traffic, and increasing central-city housing while preserving fragile central-city neighborhoods, and how to support the arts, and whether we needed a new City Hall, and how much public funding downtown renewal deserved, and whether downtown eateries could set up tables on the sidewalk. We did solve the last one.

Not that nothing has changed in Downtown -- the fact that it's now normally rendered with a capital D says much. "When we were first here, our main focus was on resuscitating the patient," says Chuck Davis, the big-wheel San Francisco architect who then and now chaired the R/UDAT team. "Now, luckily, the economy has turned around, and there's a lot of growth and vitality in Downtown. Now Austin is at a different crossroads."

1. CAPITOL COMPLEX Downtown’s biggest tenant, but a poorly used space; usually seen as an obstacle to renewal efforts.
2. UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS Linkage – physical and otherwise – between UT and Downtown is still, as the 1991 R/UDAT report said, “virtually nonexistent.”
3. I-35 A double problem: brings too much auto traffic through Downtown and walls off East Austin.
4. EAST AUSTIN Preserving existing Eastside neighborhoods, both culturally and economically, while bringing them into Downtown is a challenge for which R/UDAT has no easy answers.
5. WALLER CREEK CORRIDOR A high-priority R/UDAT project, likely requiring a $17 million (at last guess) flood-control system to support a “Creekwalk.”
6. THE RAILYARD Logical locus for downtown light-rail terminal, but other projects – like the Convention Center expansion – might get in the way.
7. CONVENTION CENTER More successful than you think, but how and where to expand it promises to be a near-term Austin political flashpoint.
8. FIFTH/SIXTH/SEVENTH STREETS Two-way conversion for traffic calming is an old idea; Seventh Street’s role as Bergstrom-to-Downtown route is a new problem.
9. CONGRESS AVENUE Nearly dead in 1991, very much alive now, and little-discussed at R/UDAT Revisited.
10. PALMER AUDITORIUM R/UDAT recommends its conversion to an arts complex – if the public isn’t asked to pay for it.
11. SEAHOLM POWER PLANT One of the anchors to R/UDAT’s waterfront plan, slated for shutdown in 2000. “I’d love to build a technology museum there,” says R/UDAT team leader Chuck Davis, famous for designing museums.
12. WAREHOUSE DISTRICT R/UDAT’s waterfront plan (and new City Hall) builds on the phenomenal – and spontaneous – rebirth of the Near West End, just as the Convention Center aimed to capitalize on Sixth Street.
13. SHOAL CREEK A unique natural feature and a way to link Downtown and the waterfront to UT and the Westside without more auto traffic.
14. OLD WEST AUSTIN “Hard-edged” zoning protections needed east of Lamar, traffic improvements needed to protect cut-through neighborhoods west of Lamar.

Revisiting Old Plans

However different the crossroads may be, the directions provided by Austin's R/UDAT navigators are largely the same. The R/UDAT is not a planning team; its purpose, at least in Austin's case, was to sort through the mountain of plans and proposals advanced over the years to make (in the words of the original 1991 report) "a good downtown into a great downtown," as befitting Austin's self-appointed status as one of the world's great cities. (Other cities with other R/UDATs have addressed other issues; Houston got one to help them deal with their lack of a zoning ordinance.) R/UDAT's 1991 suggestions were refined by a vast, and to some extent diverse, group of local stakeholders into 1992's "A Call to Action" implementation report.

Within about three months of "A Call to Action" hitting the streets, it was already dormant, at least as far the subsequent City of Austin budget was concerned, and in the summary progress-report sheets distributed at R/UDAT Revisited, the number of pending, incomplete, or simply disregarded R/UDAT suggestions far outnumbered the completed ones. In the R/UDAT team's view, the fact that there were so many suggestions probably explains that well enough; their advice then, and now, was for the city, the downtown stakeholders, and the community at large to get behind easily accomplished and practical projects that further obvious downtown goals and meet currently visible needs. Yet there's hardly anything that happens, or is proposed to happen, in the city center that hasn't been linked to the holy name of R/UDAT.

Even at R/UDAT Revisited, the conclave was broken into six broadly defined themes -- downtown management, market development, arts and human services, natural and built environment, transportation, and regulation and government policy -- that spawned a welter of discussion from a panoply of stakeholders drawn from Austin's sociopolitical A-list. This did little, it seemed, to further the mission of simplicity, but after lunch had been served and everyone went back to work, the R/UDAT team settled quickly on five specific projects, presented for public consumption the following evening on KLRU's Austin at Issue. The five proposals are:

* Redevelop the city-owned land along Town Lake between the Warehouse District and the Seaholm Power Plant for housing, drop a new City Hall next to it (on or near the Hobby Building née Republic Plaza, soon to be vacated by the state), and convert Seaholm itself into a museum of some sort.

* Expand the Convention Center, which will require explaining to the citizenry why this is necessary.

* Deal with transportation -- especially making Fifth and Sixth Streets two-way and developing a light-rail linkage within Downtown and to the rest of the world.

* Fix up Waller and Shoal Creek as walkable and developable corridors to, from, and within Downtown.

* Develop an Arts Complex at Palmer Auditorium, provided it can be done by the private sector.


Getting There

This was not all the R/UDAT team said -- see the map for more details on other Downtown hot spots and sore points -- but this was its short To Do List. Sounds easy, right? After all, every single one of these ideas existed in full form and public view back in 1991, with the exception of the waterfront housing plan, which largely originated with the R/UDAT; even the Convention Center expansion was envisioned before the Center was actually completed.

The list poses three big nasty questions, one-and-a-half of which got dealt with during R/UDAT Revisited. The first would be "What is stopping us?" The usual list of reasons got cited -- lack of city leadership, lack of private-sector leadership, lack of citizen awareness, lack of readily available funding, lack of a perceived market, general lack of will, and (again) a general lack of focus. In other words, because Austin is Austin. "We have no superficial recommendation on how to change your civic culture," said R/UDAT team member Tom Gougeon of Denver. "We can only urge that you concentrate on a finite, strategic agenda with a handful of projects and get good at getting them done."

Among the major points of agreement at R/UDAT Revisited was that the biggest part of getting them done is selling whatever passes for a Downtown vision to the entire community, particularly the taxpaying portion thereof. While the R/UDAT team noted, in the words of member Jim Murray (also of Denver), that "the city is the logical leader of this effort," it's precisely the city who has the least chance of selling what have indelibly become tagged as "boondoggles" in the public eye.

"The city ends up having to implement every idea," said Councilmember Jackie Goodman from the floor at the built-environment breakout session. "We need the community to buy in, and we can't lobby for major bond sales. The private sector has to do that; the marketplace comes up with ideas that require city funding, but never plans to get the votes that will make that funding a reality. If we in this room were the only ones to vote, these projects would have been done years ago. But we're not."


A Palatable Package?

The question that was partially addressed is, "How do these ideas affect each other and the rest of downtown?" The R/UDAT team's #1 recommendation -- combining downtown housing, Seaholm, City Hall and Shoal Creek -- shows great packaging panache, but this sort of packaging has not worked well in Austin's past. It was a similar value-added concept that was supposed to sell the baseball stadium-cum-Colorado River Park, and we know how well that went.



Eric Mercado, left, and Allen Mezei, right, are two of 12 Downtown Rangers on patrol. The walking beat grew out of a 1991 R/UDAT recommendation to beef up security.
photograph by John Anderson

Likewise, back when the Convention Center went on line, it was attended by a number of public-works and street-improvement projects held at the time to be essential parts of the package, few of which went anywhere. The current list brings up other difficult relationships for the Center. The Palmer conversion -- which probably will happen, out of necessity once UT is no longer an option for civic performing arts -- mandates Center expansion, since Palmer is currently the Center's overflow site.

Since the Center's prime deficiency now is a lack of meeting room space and of an adjacent hotel, an obvious solution is to co-locate a major hotel (with its own meeting facilities) with an expanded Center, as is done in other cities. This in turn mandates either a Waller Creek flood-control tunnel, or a preservation plan for sensitive adjacent neighborhoods like Rainey Street, or alterations to the proposed downtown light-rail system, depending on which direction the Center heads toward. These sorts of conflicts are what make Austin politics messy, the stakeholder lists numerous, and the projects die a-bornin'.

The same dynamic informs one of the major points of woe for both the R/UDAT team and their local surrogates -- the invisibility of either the Capitol Complex or UT in the Downtown fabric. One obvious and oft-cited example: It's impossible to (in Davis' words) "simply not let the car rule downtown [and] to question the God-given right of Texans to park 20 feet from their destination" while the State guarantees free parking to all employees and kills off vast sections of Downtown by building garages for this purpose. "There's tremendous overlap and under-lap between the city, the state, and the university," Davis notes. "We shy away from recommending another board or commission for Austin, but there has to be some forum for effective resolution of the issues between the three."


Unconventional Success

The third question, unspoken and unanswered in the R/UDAT Revisited proceedings, is "Why is downtown booming anyway?" The most dramatic transformation within the city center has clearly been in the Warehouse District, which has little to do with either the Convention Center or the 1991 R/UDAT's other "success story," the creation of the Downtown public-improvement district managed by the Downtown Austin Alliance. The automatic members of the latter, by statute, are major property owners with holdings worth $500,000 or more; as a result, the DAA board and leadership is full of commercial/office property interests.

Meanwhile, Downtown is full of thriving small-scale businesses started by entrepreneurs on their credit cards, and mostly located at some remove from the Convention Center, which successful though it may be at meeting its revenue projections, has proved a lousy engine for spawning additional uses in the marketplace. (You still have to walk four blocks from the Center to get a cup of coffee.) If any one group seemed, at an admittedly general glance, to be under-represented among the throngs at R/UDAT Revisited, it was the people who actually own successful downtown businesses -- most of whom probably couldn't afford to leave their work.

Even the sort of bigger, more Chamber-like projects envisioned before and processed by the R/UDAT team in 1991 are now happening without any clear guidance from either the R/UDAT effort or the DAA. Much was made of the fact that Downtown now has a viable housing market, which it didn't in 1991, yet while the liberalization of zoning that allows for more housing options in the central city can likely be chalked up to R/UDAT, the actual investment is not, and the often-envisioned public investment in downtown residential has not happened in any way. Likewise, Downtown is preparing to get its first higher-end retail complex in the Austin Marketplace, to be built along Shoal Creek south of Sixth Street -- without the mega-million-dollar subsidies held to be essential, even today, for such projects to work.

This is not to say that the R/UDAT has been a meaningless exercise, or that the DAA has not accomplished anything of value, or that nothing of value can happen in the future. It does, however, add to the sense that the real key to Downtown renewal lies outside the well-established Downtown community, among the folks who have taken risks while others talked, or who will be asked to take risks that others want. Of course, that's how those medieval cities worked, too -- the great edifices and forward-thinking plans that make them attractive today were built by the nobles off the labor and investment of the commoners and foreigners. When the latter took issue with this arrangement, people got mad and nobles got thrown out the highest windows. Having heard the wise judgment of the modern Podesta, Austin's own Downtown nobles have much work to do to avoid -- at least metaphorically -- the same scenario here.

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