I Plan, Therefore I Am

A Downtown Planning Timeline

1839: Judge Edwin Waller, later Austin's first mayor, lays out the original city of Austin -- today's downtown. Envisioned by Republic of Texas President Mirabeau Lamar as "a seat of Empire," Austin features the widest streets in Texas, east-west thoroughfares named for trees, and four public squares, of which three still exist -- Brush, Republic, and Woolridge.

1880s: The new State Capitol -- the state's third -- goes up between 1882 and 1886. Meanwhile, the University of Texas opens in 1883 across the street at 11th and Congress. It would relocate the next year to the Forty Acres -- then 30 minutes away by horse-drawn streetcar.

Goddess of Liberty statue in front of the Capitol in February 1888.

: Third and Congress becomes the transit hub of Austin, as the MKT railroad opens its new depot there, across from the existing International and Great Northern station.

1910: A state-of-the-art bridge, high and strong enough to withstand frequent floods, crosses the Colorado at Congress Avenue. Urbanization along the south bank quickly follows.

1913: Guy Town, the thriving and openly tolerated downtown brothel district, is shut down. Over time, it's redeveloped as industrial property, today known as the Warehouse District.

1928: Austin's first City Plan, by the Dallas firm of Koch and Fowler, officially segregates the city by banishing "services for the Negroes" to the east side of Waller Creek. The City Plan also envisions today's Waller and Shoal Creek greenbelts, Lamar Boulevard, and I-35.

1930s: Depression-era make-work projects in Downtown include the city Municipal Building and the new Travis County Courthouse.

1942-45: City Manager W.E. Seaholm and planning director G.S. Moore author plans calling (as the City Plan did) for more crosstown arterials and linkages between downtown and the rest of the city, as well as for cooperative planning between the city, the state, and UT.

1955: In response to new regional shopping centers like Hancock Center and Capitol Plaza, local developers APT propose Texas Center -- the conversion of Congress Avenue into a pedestrian mall and retail/office complex. Interest is minimal.

1956: Planner Hal Wise, drafting a master plan for the City, gets a side job planning the Capitol Complex, which he envisions as a mall of identical, evenly spaced high-rises. In years to come, the mixed-use neighborhood north of the Capitol would be eradicated to make way for millions of square feet of state office space and parking garages, at a cost of more than $150 million.

1961: The successor to Texas Center -- a plan for the city to purchase and redevelop Congress Avenue north to Ninth Street as a pedestrian mall, complete with enormous convention center and shopping complex -- is presented to the voters as a bond issue. It dies.

1964-65: The late Alan Taniguchi authors the Town Lake Beautification Plan, which begets -- with the fundraising help of Lady Bird Johnson -- the Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail.

1965: Local architects Shefelman and Harris are hired to produce an urban-renewal plan for Congress Avenue. Their plan for extensive tree planting and sidewalk improvements is finally implemented, in modified form, in 1975.

1968-71: Urban renewal eliminates what's left of the northeast corner of downtown. Neighborhoods are replaced by an expanded Brackenridge Hospital, various state parking garages, and UT facilities, most notably the Frank Erwin Center.

1975-77: Austin Tomorrow, the city's still-in-force comprehensive plan, envisions a mixed-use downtown: "The residential use of land is important to the revitalization of the central business district." A specific plan for Congress Avenue by acting UT architecture dean John Gallery calls for loft apartments over existing businesses, and new residential complexes south of Fifth Street.

1976: The Lower Waller Creek Development Plan envisions a "creekwalk" with retail, commercial, and residential development, made possible by the same flood bypass tunnel now being debated, two decades later, by the city council. The same year, the Austin Creeks project, produced as a Bicentennial gift to the nation, calls for developing and enhancing Austin's urban waterways as the city's most valuable asset.

1978: The American City Corporation, a unit of shopping-mall mega-developer The Rouse Company, is commissioned to draft an urban-renewal master plan for the southern half of downtown and the south bank of the river. Projects born of American City's efforts include the Hyatt Regency, several skyscrapers, and a scattering of condos along the lakeshore. The plan's main elements, though -- including a Galleria-style hotel/office complex along Congress, a new residential neigborhood where today's Convention Center now stands, and a "peoplemover" tram system across Town Lake -- go unbuilt.

Seaholm Power Plant
photograph by Kenny Braun

1980: To hasten American City's efforts, the city develops a plan to remove what's left of downtown rail service. (The passenger service had been gone for years.) Several constituencies -- including, oddly, the coalition now known as El Concilio -- call for the development of a light-rail transit system using the old downtown tracks.

1982: A team led by Sinclair Black wins the competition to design the City's Municipal Office Complex, a project combining a new City Hall with private office and hotel space, to be located between First and Third Streets, west of Congress. The plan falls apart when developer John Watson, slated to build the MOC, goes bankrupt, but the idea of combining City Hall with something else, and building it in the Warehouse District, lives on.

1985: Alan Taniguchi chairs the Downtown Revitalization Task Force, which creates the existing CBD zoning and overlays, including the various Capitol View corridors.

1986: The Downtown Gateway Access Study calls for major downtown street improvements, including extending Third Street all the way west to MoPac, to improve traffic flow, create alternative transportation opportunities, bust holes through I-35, and "enhance the overall environmental quality" of downtown. The Bust intervenes.

1987-89: Austinplan, the massive attempt to replace Austin Tomorrow, envisions -- guess what? -- a mixed use downtown with a substantial residential component, including high-rise apartments in the Warehouse District. After much bloodletting, Austinplan is shot down by the city council in 1989.

1991: The American Institute of Architects sends a Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT) to Austin. The R/UDAT repeats previous calls for a mixed-use, cooperatively planned, and accessible downtown, but urges the city to focus on a few projects, like redeveloping Seaholm Power Plant. The local R/UDAT boosters do exactly the opposite. The R/UDAT effort begets the Downtown Austin Alliance, a public improvement district supported by downtown property owners, and also, indirectly, the sidewalk cafe ordinance.

The Convention Center

photograph by Jana Birchum

: The Austin Convention Center, pegged by downtown boosters (though not by the R/UDAT team) as the linchpin to renewal, opens its doors on July 4. Revitalization, however, avoids the Center area like a bad debt and thrives elsewhere in downtown. The same year, the city hires San Francisco-based Keyser Marston as its downtown consultant, kicking off five years of political games but no tangible results.

1996: Heritage Austin, an offshoot of the Heritage Society led by Page Southerland Page principal Matt Kreisle, begins work on a community-based downtown vision project. This is so successful that Heritage Austin ends up supplanting both Keyser Marston and the DAA as the city's designated downtown-renewal brain trust.

1997: Mayoral candidate Kirk Watson calls for 5,000 new housing units downtown in five years. The R/UDAT team comes back, repeats most of its original advice, and calls for special effort to develop downtown residential on city-owned land in and near the Warehouse District. The two ideas come together in Watson's Downtown Initiative.

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