Past Planning Efforts

We've been down this street before ...

Having now been on the brink of collapse for more than three decades, Rainey Street has been the focus of many ambitious plans and schemes, both to save the neighborhood and to replace it. Viewed with hindsight, the Rainey plans now on the shelf contain a surprising number of what today sound like plausible, even fashionable, ideas. Here are some highlights of the history of Rainey planning:

1967: The Austin Community Renewal Program, the city's federally funded urban-renewal plan, proposes relocating 110 of the 166 families then living in Rainey, putting in "large-scale high-density residential development" along the lake and commercial along the interstate, and a tourist information center on East Avenue. At this point, the Lakeside Apartments senior-housing complex (at the end of Trinity) and the Holiday Inn/Town Lake were already under construction.

1976: The Lower Waller Creek Development Plan, which begat both the Trail and the Tunnel, recommends that what is now the Mexican-American Cultural Center site "be reserved for neighborhood activities." The plan calls for greatly increased residential and "multi-use" projects along the entire length of the creek.

1978: City planners produce a "conservation and redevelopment program" for Rainey that divides the neighborhood into three areas. It would rehabilitate the homes along Rainey for their residents; develop the MACC site as medium-density housing; and develop the edges with retail and commercial, more intense to the north, more neighborhood-scale to the east.

1979: The American City Corporation's mega-downtown-renewal plan -- covering everything south of Fourth Street -- calls for all of Rainey Street to be wiped from the map, to be replaced by apartments and townhouses in a lovely garden setting.

1980: Mobilized by the American City plan, the East Austin Chicano Economic Development Corporation -- EACEDC, an offshoot of Paul Hernandez's political alliance, now known as El Concilio -- presents a plan "based upon the concept [of] upgrading the historical residential use of the Rainey neighborhood as a predominantly Mexican-American barrio." The Barrio plan is the first to propose designating a historic district, done for real in 1987. It also includes what at the time were quite novel (for Texas) ideas like rent control, residential tax abatements, and an "anti-speculation ordinance" -- all of which El Concilio still pushes for today. As for land use itself, the Barrio plan echoes many of the suggestions of the city's 1978 conservation plan and urges that the neighborhood be surrounded by a greenbelt.

1980: Also in response to the outcry over American City, a major "Development Alternatives for the Rainey Area" study is produced by city planners. It offers three scenarios, all of which protect the existing single-family housing along Rainey Street, and none of which propose full-scale CBD zoning and development for the neighborhood, but all of which require zoning changes and public investment. The Alternatives study is the first to take a comprehensive look at cut-through traffic, already a problem in Rainey. Less than six months later, ground is broken for the Towers of Town Lake.

1985: How's this for irony? In response to an upzoning request to support a major project at the very foot of Rainey Street -- that's right, the same property now owned by Gordon Dunnaway -- the city updates the Alternatives study and discovers that, to its surprise, many Rainey residents are ready to sell out. (Key planner on the project was Betty Baker, now chair of the Planning Commission.) The update proposes some stopgap measures for protecting Rainey residents, but notes that "it is difficult to tell who, exactly, speaks for the Rainey neighborhood." Among those measures are traffic-calming projects that were finally completed 12 years later.

1987: After recommending a site near Rainey for the then-unbuilt, ever-wandering Austin Convention Center, the city's consultant, Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill -- America's most famous architecture firm -- is quickly asked to prepare an addendum showing how Rainey Street could coexist with the Palazzo Turistico. As it turns out, nothing gets done.

1991: The Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT) sent by the American Institute of Architects recommends the preservation of the Rainey Street neighborhood. But it gives no details, and none are forthcoming in "A Call to Action," the report of the local R/UDAT implementation committee (parent of today's Downtown Austin Alliance). The 1997 followup, "R/UDAT Revisited: A Call to Finish," does not address Rainey Street.

1999: The City of Austin Design Commission's long-awaited downtown design guidelines take a pass on Rainey, incorporating by reference the 1980 Alternatives and the 1985 update. (The draft guidelines also defer to existing plans for other areas -- Town Lake Park, East 11th/12th streets, and South Congress -- but those plans are a lot fresher than the 15- and 20-year-old Rainey studies. --M.C.M.

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