Imagine Austin's Future
Community Engagement

Old Bakery Idea-Thon asks Austin residents to re-imagine downtown

Old Bakery Idea-Thon asks Austin residents to re-imagine downtown

Austin Photo Set: News_Katherine_OldBakery_Jan 2012_paper sculputre1
This initiative aims to get Austinites involved in the design and planning of their own city through a series of interactive events that involve hands-on building and brainstorming activities. The crowning event will be a design competition to create a master plan for the Old Bakery Block that incorporates the ideas generated during the six month project. Courtesy of Old Bakery Block Idea-Thon
Austin Photo Set: News_Katherine_OldBakery_Jan 2012_paper sculputre1
Austin Photo Set: News_Katherine_OldBakery_Jan 2012_paper sculputre
Austin Photo Set: News_Katherine_OldBakery_Jan 2012_group

As Austin's downtown continues to grow and thrive, a curious black hole still exists on Congress Avenue between 10th and 11th Streets. If you walk north towards the Capitol at night, the noise, pedestrians and lit storefront windows gradually fade until your footsteps echo as if you've wandered into an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Past 10th Street, there's nothing much to see — The Old Bakery and Emporium and a small park to the west, a Starbucks and Bank of Texas to the east. Since all of these close in the early evening, this prime piece of real estate feels mostly deserted after 6 p.m. Even during the day the Starbucks seems like the busiest place on the block, which isn't exactly keeping this small patch of Austin very "weird."

This could all soon change. The Old Bakery Idea-Thon, a collaboration between the American Institute of Architects Austin, the Downtown Austin Alliance and the City of Austin, kicked off this past October. According to their website, it's “a six month festival of 1000 great ideas, events, design challenges and new collaborations, imagining a new future for the Old Bakery Block in Austin, Texas.”

 This initiative aims to get Austinites involved in the design and planning of their own city through a series of interactive events that involve hands-on building and brainstorming activities.

This initiative aims to get Austinites involved in the design and planning of their own city through a series of interactive events that involve hands-on building and brainstorming activities.

The crowning event will be a design competition to create a master plan for the Old Bakery Block that incorporates the ideas generated during the six month project.

The kickoff event, on October 8th of this past year, was hosted by self-proclaimed “cheerleaders of possibility,” Public Workshop. Founded by former Austin resident and Philadelphia-based architect Alex Gilliam, Public Workshop “creates uniquely engaging opportunities for youth and their communities to shape the design of their cities.”

According to Gilliam, “a lot of the tools that we use in engaging people for planning our cities are just broken,” so his approach steers away from sitting around discussing ideas to actually getting people up on their feet to create together. 

“People don't really want to talk about things anymore," Gilliam says. "They're tired of it, they're jaded and they don't want to fill out another damn survey or... come to a meeting and just be talked to. People love to make stuff.”

He continues, “I think often, when we look at barn raising or making a community garden, we too often get focused on the final product when it is the raising itself [that's important], and often that act of doing something seemingly impossible together can shift and alter relationships in a really positive way.”

 Every week, the site posts a new creative challenge to get people thinking about the block's potential future.

Gilliam's methods are already working. The kickoff event, which took place in front of the Old Bakery,  generated over 400 ideas and though the outdoor portion of the workshop was rained out, almost everyone moved to the alternate indoor space and stayed long after it officially ended. Even curious passerby were drawn in by the live Brazilian band, Seu Jacinto, and a large community chalkboard where everyone could write down their thoughts.

Ideas ranged from creating a permanent, on-site screen and stage for movies and live performances to building an interactive play-scape for children of all ages. 

The Idea-Thon will continue to solicit ideas via its website, Twitter feed and Facebook page. Every week, the site posts a new creative challenge to get people thinking about the block's potential future. Gilliam's latest idea, to “invite people to help build an eight foot long chocolate cake master plan of the block,” stems from his previous experiences working with residents to construct a chocolate cake model of a new development in Montreal.

Gilliam's aware of how unorthodox this sounds, but then again, he has a reputation for thinking outside the box. “The idea of using chocolate cake as a tool is not a flip idea (although I do really like chocolate cake). It's true, we all love chocolate.” 

He adds, “People will be more likely to show up to make a giant chocolate cake than not, and no one can get upset about chocolate cake.” 

Maintaining this type of energy is crucial to keeping Austin residents interested in the process, but Gilliam isn't worried. “The passion that people had [to make great public spaces in Austin] was staggering... it's mind boggling and wonderful; the idea that the energy was there and that at its core, there's the desire of people to come together to do something different.”