I used to avoid East 7th Street like the plague. Sure, I’d drive over the Chicon Street part when I was headed to East 6th for drinks, but other than that, you would never see me there. Then one day this summer something magical happened. The barricades, cones and traffic-down-to-one-lane that had made using 7th street as a short cut to other parts of town impossible, just disappeared. And in their place came all sorts of fun, city-improving changes.
Like a kid who hates to take cough syrup but realizes how much better they feel after swallowing it down, not only have I visited East 7th Street a million times since the changes debuted a couple of months ago, you can hardly keep me from driving it; I’ll go out of my way to make sure East 7th Street is a part of my route. So, because I’m so excited that I can now drive down it without road rage, and because they did a stand-up, fantastic job and because it’s easy to drive down a street and not notice changes, here are seven things you should know about the new East 7th Street improvements:
1. It was a long time coming
City Council first noticed changes needed to be made in this area of East Austin way back in 2001. They issued an ordinance that the area from Shady Lane to I-35 could use some fixing up and 21 different areas for improvements were identified. An RFQ (request for quotation) was put out, and Urban Design Group was the company chosen; they began in 2003. Urban Design Group took those fairly general 21 areas that needed improvement and turned them from broad goals to actual design plans. From 2003 to 2006, Urban Design Group and the project held public meetings and talked to the neighborhood, going through the designs and addressing concerns. After waiting for another project to get finished in the area (TXDOT’s bridge just east of Pleasant Valley Road), in 2007 the project identified some other infrastructure needs that existed in the area and was able to get money from the 2006 bond, enabling the project to expand the area getting upgraded along East 7th (now includes the area between Navasota Street and Pleasant Valley Road). After much planning, advertising of the project in 2009, lots of talking to the public and all kinds of design plans, work finally began on March 5th, 2010. The construction barricades were removed overnight on Sunday, August 7th, 2011.
2. It’s more than just a nicer road
The road from Navasota Street to Pleasant Valley Road is super nice now, trust me, but it’s more than just that. It’s total upgrades to the water and wastewater infrastructure and the fixing of existing sidewalks and installation of new ones. It’s fancy-looking pavers in the center turn lane. It’s trees along the street for shade and cooler temperatures and other aesthetically pleasing landscaping. It’s lighting additions and improvements to the accessibility of the street and its businesses.
3. It takes a village to raise a street
I spoke with the project manager, Clay Harris about this project, and he provided a ton of insider info. The designers and consultants behind these fabulous changes are the folks at Urban Design Group, an urban planning company. But that’s only a few of the people involved. And we mean few. I encourage you to check out the “ground-breaking” team behind the Austin Public Works Department (gosh I love puns) that worked not only on this project but continue working to shape the look of Austin every day.
4. It could have taken longer but they were totally smart about it and did it two months early
That’s right. Instead of doing the work in smaller sections of the street, they decided to tackle the work in a few larger sections. For the benefit of the public, for sure, but it was also because they were listening to concerns from businesses along the street, working as quickly as they could so as not to interrupt business any longer than necessary. Instead of it taking the projected 18 months, the hard-working folks behind this project made it happen in a cool 16 months.
5. That more got changed than originally planned
One of my favorite things I learned about this project and about city projects in generally (of which, for a so-called “design expert,” I know woefully little about) is that the project changed and grew when appropriate. That those behind it were flexible and open to additions as they came to be needed or required. It’s nice to know the city’s actually listening and taking the time to do what’s right for us, you know?
6. Local art is involved
Understanding that art is a huge part of Austin and an even huger part of the East Side, the city worked with the city’s Art in Public Places Program to commission art from local artists for obeliscos, way-finding signs that are basically beautiful pieces of art with maps on them to help you identify where you’re at, provide public transportation information and tell you what local attractions are around you. Eight local artists were chosen to create work that would spice up the look of the street but also pay respect to history and culture of the neighborhood. The artists and obelisco locations are: Ben Appl (Comal Street), Maggie DeSanto (Robert Martinez Street), Martin Garcia (Pleasant Valley Road), Claudia Reese (Calles Street), Alonso Rey-Sanchez (Pedernales Street), Nailah Sankofa (Northwestern Avenue), Susan Wallace (Webberville Road) and Aly Winningham (Chicon Street).
7. That it’s not the only changes being made to the East Side on a city-changing level
Again, visit the Austin Public Works website and totally check out what projects are happening next in your city and see how you can get involved!