Music to our ears

New visionary plan reimagines Austin with parkland over I-35 and more

New visionary plan reimagines Austin with parkland over I-35 and more

Austin aerial view downtown skyline
One of the tenants would complete a network of parks, trails, and places that would encircle downtown. Austin, Texas - Your City Government/Facebook

A new vision plan for downtown Austin has identified seven key priorities that citizens believe will issue in a new era for the city.

Earlier this month, the Downtown Austin Alliance released a vision for downtown Austin in 2039 — when the city will mark its 200th anniversary — based on input from about 3,000 members of the community and boosters of the Central Business District. The initiative, guided by a 20-member steering committee, collected the input through workshops, focus groups, online surveys, and other means.

The Downtown Austin Vision initiative singled out these seven priorities:

  • Reconnect downtown and East Austin by capping I-35.
  • Develop a downtown trust to protect Austin's cultural and historical assets.
  • Build up the Capital City Innovation District anchored by the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas.
  • Complete a network of parks, trails, and places that encircle downtown, connecting Waller Creek, Lady Bird Lake, Shoal Creek, and the Capitol Complex.
  • Develop and carry out a plan to address homelessness.
  • Ramp up “placemaking” efforts on Congress Avenue and East Sixth Street to create vibrant, welcoming places for everyone.
  • Create a “robust” multimodal transit network for the central part of the city.

With mobility the inspiration behind multiple pillars of the plan, boosters of the Central Business District are throwing their support behind an innovative strategy to help unclog traffic on I-35.

As explained in 2016 by The Alcalde, the alumni magazine produced by the University of Texas, this proposal would bury I-35 from Cesar Chavez Street through 12th Street in an underground tunnel. That would pave the way for the addition of north-south toll lanes below the surface. The tunnel would be capped by parkland, helping to physically reconnect East Austin and downtown Austin.

Leaders of the Downtown Austin Vision project say the I-35 concept represents “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enhance downtown’s vitality.” If transportation officials move ahead with the I-35 retrofit, it would take several years and hundreds of millions of dollars to complete the project.

Another priority specified by the Downtown Austin Vision initiative is establishment of a “cultural trust” to preserve cultural and historical assets downtown, such as music venues, and to open new ones.

A report from the Downtown Austin Vision project defines a cultural trust as a financial tool that can be tapped to preserve, develop, or “activate” places that contribute to cultural vibrancy. These places could include music venues and iconic businesses.

For years, promoters of Austin’s music scene have bemoaned rising rents and other economic pressures that have squeezed out both venues and artists. A report from the Urban Land Institute warns that music venues in downtown’s Red River District, including Stubb’s BBQ and Mohawk Austin, are in danger of being replaced or severely harmed as real estate development ramps up in the area.

One participant in the Downtown Austin Vision project noted: “If Austin is not careful, we will lose our cultural identity and it will become cost-prohibitive for artists and musicians and bars and music venues, and we will no longer be the Live Music Capital of the World.”

Ultimately, the seven priorities are meant to provide the framework for continued discussions. In order to achieve success, say the creators, "it will take dedicated collaboration and commitment of many entities across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors."