Competing Tunnel Visions

Traffic Solutions at Sixth and Lamar

Local business owner Evan Williams says that all the DAA wants is to get people in and out of town as quickly as possible.

photograph by John Anderson

Shopping in the retail area along West Sixth on a sunny Saturday afternoon is an oddly incongruous experience. The sidewalks fronting the arts and antique stores are quietly traveled and the outdoor patios buzz with conversation -- it is a comfortable, people-oriented environment, except, on your cheek you feel the wind blowing off the multiple lanes of cars rushing by a few feet away. New Tarrytown resident Christie Perret is visiting this strip of shops just west of Lamar for the first time with her daughter, Paige, 6, and a relative, Kim. Spying the Coffee Exchange on the opposite side of Sixth, the three approach the nearby pedestrian crosswalk and watch for a break in traffic. They wait. They wait some more. A woman on a business errand takes the crossing at a run. The Perrets continue to wait.

When they finally make it across, Kim says, "It'd be nice if they'd just put a pedestrian signal here or something. This is kind of bad."

A signal? It was less than two years ago that Public Works and Transportation deigned even to paint a crosswalk at the intersection. As much as West Austin retailers would like to cultivate small-town charm along Fifth and Sixth streets, the city has persistently refused to hinder the flow of traffic to accommodate pedestrians, citing the streets as important downtown arterials.

As anyone who has driven through the Lamar and Sixth interchange at rush hour knows, commuters exiting downtown already confront delays trying to cross Lamar. And that intersection, along with the one at Fifth and Lamar, will become even busier when the 500,000-square-foot Austin Marketplace and other retail centers open on those corners next year. Most agree that the situation demands street improvements, but, like the perpendicular traffic streams competing for access through the clogged intersections, the ideas for re-engineering the area have conflicting objectives.

Area retailers and residents, championed by the Old West Austin Neighborhood Association (OWANA) and the West End Association, want to relieve the congestion by tunneling two Lamar express lanes underneath Fifth and Sixth streets, from Ninth to Town Lake, and convert the aboveground lanes into calmed, local access roads that will coincide harmoniously with proposed "New Urban" architecture fronting Lamar. Sixth and Fifth would become two-way, four-lane roads with slower speed limits. But another plan, offered by the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA), would prioritize east-west traffic instead, converting Fifth and Sixth streets into express tunnels underneath Lamar, leaving local access lanes along those streets but removing the parking.

The West Austin folks say the DAA plan is just the kind of commuter-friendly design they will no longer oblige -- racing lanes of traffic cutting apart their rows of shops. The Sixth Street tunnel, as currently drawn up, would emerge above ground at Baylor, just upstream from where the Perrets crossed at Blanco, meaning that express traffic would cut through that intersection and the portion of the retail strip extending further west. Needless to say, the crosswalk would be gone. Pedestrians would have to walk east and cross Sixth above the tunnel.

Charles Russell, president of the West End Association and owner of the Pecan Street Emporium on Sixth, says the loss of onstreet parking and pedestrian access caused by the Fifth and Sixth Street tunnels would cause West Austin to deteriorate. "We're one of the few viable downtown areas that has residential areas and business areas together in harmony," says Russell, "and we're a thriving area, unlike downtown, which has very little shopping and very little residential area."

Neighborhood activist Karen Akins says the Lamar tunnel represents community initiative to seize control of neighborhood planning away from car-fixated city engineers.

photograph by John Anderson

OWANA member Karen Akins points out that, unlike the DAA plan, the Lamar tunnel idea was generated at a charette sponsored last spring by the Austin Neighborhood Council (ANC) and attended by city planners, area merchants and developers, and surrounding neighborhood representatives. Akins says the Lamar tunnel, designed to enhance the appeal of the area's retail zone for pedestrians and cyclists, represents community initiative to seize control of neighborhood planning away from car-fixated city engineers.

At that charette, outside consultants characterized Austin as a city with well-designed neighborhoods that unfortunately has been badly stewarded by city planners: Lamar, for example, once intended as a tree-lined, mixed residential and retail boulevard, had been utterly ruined, they said. Public spaces should be designed with aesthetics and public accessibility in mind, one consultant said, but "it is very clear that that's not going on right now. That is why those ideas that we're proposing -- I'm afraid that the only constituency that's going to see it through are the citizens of the neighborhood."

It's an apt point, because the Lamar tunnel incorporates ideas that engineers don't typically dream up and may not readily accept. Landscaping wide sidewalks with covered arcades along storefronts is obviously counter-intuitive to planners who think in terms of maximizing the width of the asphalt. And a more technical innovation, the traffic roundabout, is introduced as a prescription for the interchanges at Fifth and Sixth; the traffic consultant who came to Austin touting the design, Michael Wallwork, says the roundabouts will allow Fifth and Sixth Street commuters easier access across Lamar than traditional signalled intersections. Roundabouts, he says, increase roads' capacity more effectively than widening projects, and are much less destructive.

Akins and other charette participants are also convinced that a roundabout would be sufficient to move east/west traffic. She agrees with Wallwork that replacing signalized intersections with roundabouts would be a better way to increase traffic flow than widening or adding lanes. "They [the city] want to slap down more lanes, but that's still not going to solve your problem, because you're going to have to sit at the lights," says Akins.

Sixth Street and Lamar is the site of a proposal to build a $40 million, 500,000 square foot "Market Place" filled with shops, restaurants, and a movie theatre. The question on the table now is what to do with all that traffic.

The DAA, however, is not so sure that the charette/Lamar tunnel proposal is an ideal solution. DAA director Lucy Buck says her group offered a lower-cost, potentially more realistic plan that she claims would work to control traffic equally as well. Rather than making a north/south tunnel under Lamar, the DAA proposes to make express-lane tunnels running east-west under Fifth and Sixth Streets. The projected cost, Buck points out, is roughly estimated at $7 million, compared to $15 million for the Lamar tunnel, and the retail-killing construction period would be shorter. (The preliminary designs and cost estimates are courtesy of local engineering firm Carter & Burgess.) And no one knows for sure whether roundabouts, on which the rapid commute of drivers shuttling between downtown, I-35, and Mo-Pac would hinge, will really function as well as proponents claim. The volume of traffic on Fifth and Sixth streets is equal to that on Cesar Chavez, Buck says, and should not to be tinkered with lightly. Although the DAA is not equally as enthusiastic about the Lamar tunnel idea, Buck says she wants "both proposals to move forward in the same train."

Akins and area business owners believe the real reason DAA offered its proposal was to try to keep the emerging retail village in West Austin from interfering with the commuting corridors of the DAA's constituency. Akins suggests the DAA "forced the idea in" to paralyze the Lamar tunnel initiative and to avoid losing face when it saw that the community had acted first to devise a traffic solution. "They're the spoilers here," says Akins. She says West Austin merchants are being compelled, for the sake of survival, to band together against the DAA on this issue.

Evan Williams, of the Edward Joseph company, headquartered at Sixth and Lamar, says it is correct to characterize the plans as a competition between West Austin and the DAA. Williams, who has plans to build a retail center on the southwest corner of Sixth and Lamar, says, "All they [the DAA] want is to get people in and out of town as quickly as possible, and we at Sixth and Lamar are in the way."

But the Austin Neighborhoods Council's Clare Barry, a co-organizer of the Lamar charrette, says that ultimately all businesspeople trying to keep downtown alive are competing with suburban retail strips, not each other, and she believes the stakeholders will have to find common ground because downtown improvements won't go forward without cooperation. Buck agrees, saying the DAA plan was offered to help find any workable solution that can break the city's inertia. "It's easy to stop stuff," she says. "It's harder to get stuff done."

The large property owners and developers on the corners of Sixth and Lamar say they're not interested in supporting one plan over another. Scott Young, the developer behind Waterloo Records and the Whole Foods complex, key businesses which helped initiate the "retail renaissance" in West Austin, says the Lamar tunnel looks like a "pretty good idea," but that he would not want downtown traffic impeded and is skeptical about roundabouts. Likewise, David Vitanza, a partner in the Austin Marketplace development, says that any grade separation of travel lanes is potentially bad for business, adding, "The neighborhood proposal has an aesthetic edge, but there's downsides to both [plans]."

Large developers, however, sometimes have to watch what they say about street projects, lest they be asked to share any of the costs. Smaller retailers are more vocal with their opinions.

"We were completely opposed, as a group, to what we saw of the Downtown Alliance plan... because it totally ruins what we're trying to create in the area as a shopping district," says Melissa Gonzales, owner of Morning Star Trading Company on W. Fifth, and a West End Association member who attended the charrette.

And charrette participant Robert Barnstone, a former city councilmember and the developer of a condominium and retail development at Ninth and Lamar, says that even though the traffic changes won't affect him directly, it is clear which way the city needs to go. Observing traffic at the intersections of Lamar and Fifth and Sixth streets makes it obvious, says Barnstone, that the Lamar traffic is heaviest and needs the express lanes the most. The Fifth and Sixth Street tunnels are an "unproductive" idea, he adds, that will "make that retail environment much less friendly and, more importantly, the new developments will be much more difficult to get across.

"Here you have this promising retail renaissance, that every city in the country vies for, in the downtown area. Are we gonna say, `Uh uh, we're going to kill it because we'd rather it were a wasteland?'" Barnstone asks.

Russell says there is not much chance that West Austin retailers would ever accept tunnels along Fifth and Sixth streets.

"I, quite frankly, doubt that that's something anyone in our neighborhood would even consider," says Russell, adding that in lieu of an expensive project like the Lamar tunnel, other traffic calming options, such as slower speeds induced by synchronized signals and pedestrian crossings, might be satisfactory. Whichever proposed traffic solution, if any, finds an advocate at city hall and receives an appropriation, no digging is imminent. The expense and conflicting interests involved have apparently made any proposed improvements politically unfriendly. Councilmember Beverly Griffith, who sponsored the charrette, says the idea has had no exposure in council offices or public meetings. "We're not talking about it all, nobody is," Griffith says. "It is silent."

At the recent city retreat for Public Works and Transportation staff, Akins was appalled that her neighborhood was not even included on the list of traffic-calming pilot projects planned by the department. OWANA has long said that any efforts to reduce the traffic flow through West Austin are needed, and Akins said she felt she was being ignored again.

Neighborhood traffic calming coordinator Joan Hudson says that Fifth and Sixth cannot be included in her pilot projects because technically they are arterials, not neighborhood streets. The irony makes Akins groan. The presence of those one-way streets is the reason area shoppers have to cut through Akins' neighborhood to get back to Lamar.

However, Public Works and Transportation director Peter Rieck says his department is not idly twiddling its thumbs and waiting for direction on future Lamar projects. "We're willing to take the initiative and do the feasibility study, rather than wait and hope someone remembers to tell us what to do later," says Rieck. Dave Gerard, head of the city's transportation division, says his staff has begun compiling traffic data in the area as a preliminary study, but the real work -- solving the engineering logistics -- has yet to begin. "I think we need to get going," says Gerard. "I think the traffic analysis and the process need to start, certainly, and I see that happening this spring."

Meanwhile, area developer Whit Hanks, of Whit Hanks Antiques on Fifth, observes that the West Austin neighborhood and the DAA share common ground on the issue of converting Fifth and Sixth streets to two-way traffic, and suggests that that could be a place to start.

"That's quite an easy solution -- maybe a half-million dollar solution, because all that's required is an interchange down at MoPac, which is quite adaptable," says Hanks. "And then we can try it and see if it makes a difference."

Rieck says that he wants the possibility of two-way traffic conversion included in his department's feasibility study, but says that "not everyone feels that two-way is an enhancement to access to the respective businesses." It's interesting to note that actually converting to two-way traffic right now would cost about the same as funding the feasibility studies on the Lamar and Fifth and Sixth Street tunnels -- about a half-million dollars.

As for the Fifth and Sixth Street tunnel idea, Hanks says that "if the only constituency supporting it are some people trying to get out of downtown, there's no way that's going to happen.... My impression is that the New Urbanism mentality is pretty strong amongst the general city staff -- not necessarily among the transportation people, but they're coming around, I'm sure," Hanks says. "It's all just a matter of re-learning something that you thought you already had learned once."

Eventually, something will have to be done about the infrastructure in the Lamar at Fifth and Sixth Street area. The advent of the Market Place development and the surrounding retail shops that have emerged in the last five or six years, converting West Austin into a full-blown retail community, now make it critical that the city pay attention to the escalating traffic problems. Akins and others will be fighting to make sure the city respects the designs neighborhood stakeholders have laid to reinstate an appealing village atmosphere in the new urban development. "What we don't want is a Burnet Road feel," says Williams. "That's not the character of this area."

"This is a neighborhood feel we have in the West End," says Gonzales. "It is a place that truly speaks to what Austin is -- what most of us moved here to have.... We think that you've arrived downtown when you get off MoPac, they [the DAA] think that you've arrived downtown when you get to Congress."

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