Smart cities recognize that creating a distinctive downtown can provide both quality of life opportunities for its citizens and a competitive position in the global, national, and regional marketplace. The arts and culture of a community are main ingredients in creating such a distinctive place, whether expressed through the numerous activities that create scenes of cultural vitality and creativity that draw residents, visitors, and businesses to that place, or whether expressed through the physical urban stage—the cultural facilities, public spaces, and architectural and streetscape details—that support and encourage these dynamic activities to happen.
Second Street—and the southwest quadrant of downtown Austin, Texas, that surrounds this burgeoning retail district—possess all the urban ingredients and will continue to thrive as the projects discussed in this article are completed over the next several years.
The first layer of the physical stage of the city is represented by its centers of cultural vitality. These are the cultural facilities—art museums, galleries, live music venues, theaters, dance education centers, children’s museums, and others—that are destinations for residents and visitors seeking aesthetic moments of contemplation, active learning, participation, or just plain fun.
For years, Antone’s, La Zona Rosa, the Austin Music Hall, and other live music venues in Austin have been destinations for the aficionados of the “Live Music Capital of the World.” With the revitalization of Second Street, there are now galleries and lifestyle shops that have been added to the mix. The Austin City Hall lobby and its public spaces are becoming what architect Antoine Predock hoped they would—a “theater for the people”—with the multimedia documentary Faces of Austin highlighting local filmmakers’ and residents’ stories, and its annual exhibition The Peoples’ Gallery highlighting local visual artists.
In the next few years, a number of other cultural facilities will come online, providing additional draws. Ballet Austin’s Butler Dance Education Center, for example, is now open for summer classes. It also houses their dance academy and administrative offices, seven rehearsal studios, and an in-house performance space. One of the Ballet’s “street” highlights is its rehearsal studio, featuring a wall of windows inviting passersby to view ballet practices.
On the block south of Republic Square, Austin Museum of Art—Austin’s community art museum—will find a new home. Not a traditional art museum building, it is being developed jointly with a local developer as a mixed-used facility. The museum will occupy the first two floors, and residences will be located above. Block 21, directly north of City Hall, will house the new Austin Children’s Museum and the popular Austin City Limits Studios currently hosted at the University of Texas. And with the developer that is constructing a residential high-rise next door, even the Austin Music Hall has planned renovations to add a late-night restaurant and an additional 1,000 seats to its existing 1,800.
Across the river from City Hall is Auditorium Shores, often used for music festivals, and the growing Long Center for the Performing Arts, due to open spring 2008. Downtown Austin is hopping with new cultural facilities, providing more opportunities for cultural experiences than ever for citizens and visitors alike.
Public Urban Spaces
The second layer of the physical stage of the city is the urban public spaces. These are the small parks and plazas, Town Lake with its trails and gathering places, and the streetscape “rooms” created between buildings. Combined, these support and encourage dynamic activities and interaction. Second Street possesses all these urban public spaces plus active outdoor public rooms for special events that are created by cordoning off streets.
Republic Square, one of Austin’s four original squares, was the 1838 site of the original Austin plat auctions. It was a dynamic meeting and celebration place for Austin’s Mexican-American community in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the 1950s, however, it was converted to a parking lot. Today, the plaza is a park, and falls under the oversight of the Downtown Austin Alliance, Austin Parks Foundation, City of Austin, U.S. General Services Administration, and other partners. It is becoming a cultural destination once again, with Movies in the Park, Yoga in the Park, Austin’s primary Cinco de Mayo celebration, a Saturday morning farmer’s market, and other activities and events. With the decision to locate the new federal courthouse (scheduled to begin construction in 2008 contingent upon funding) on the block west of Republic Square, the City agreed to close the street between the two—creating a public room that will incorporate both spaces. With the existing Plaza Lofts to the east, the new Austin Museum of Art to the south, and a new residential high-rise planned for the north, this historic square is poised to become more vibrant than ever (view map of Republic Square and surrounding blocks).
Along Second Street itself, cafés have been allowed to extend their seating areas onto the wider sidewalks—a conscious design decision to create more visible street activity that signals this is where the action is. And the Austin City Hall Public Plaza provides a complimentary activity on many noontimes with the “Live from the Plaza” music series.
Events on a grander scale occur when the City creates the largest public rooms by cordoning off entire city streets. Since 1999, the Austin Fine Arts Festival—Austin’s premier fine arts and crafts gathering—has occurred annually on streets around and south of Republic Square, attracting national artists for local and regional buyers.
On December 31, 2005, Austin held its inaugural First Night celebration, a family-friendly New Year’s Eve party that used downtown as a large theater stage, incorporating existing foyers, building walls, streets, bridges, and the riverside as visual arts and performance venues. One of the numerous highlights was the colorful Austintatious parade that traveled down Congress Avenue and then west on Second Street, culminating at the City Hall Public Plaza.
And the summer and fall of 2006, Blue Lapis Light’s Requiem was performed on the partially-built, five-floor Intel building frame on the block where the new federal courthouse will reside. With dramatic lighting and ethereal music, dancers tethered to the building with harnesses swooped from the building shell and rose from the ground to reach heights up to 80 feet, seemingly floating in space as rock climbers “walked” down the unfinished building’s side. It was a sensory and spiritual experience few will forget.
Architecture, Streetscapes, and Urban Detail
The third layer of the physical stage of the city is detail—the individual elements on the surfaces of the buildings, the ground, and the street furniture and lighting. Detail also includes discrete sculptures that provide signals of meaning. These combined elements, full of rich detail, are the backdrop where the everyday occurs—where people play out their lives, moving back and forth from work to home. Here is the canvas upon which they go out to eat, to the theater, to live music venues and to special events.
The Public Plaza of City Hall hosts Seeding Time, a public “sculpture” by Nobuho Nagasawa. Focusing on a sapling grown from an acorn of the 500-year old Austin Treaty Oak, the artwork pays homage to five centuries past and five centuries future with five concentric rings in the pavement, each representing 100 years of growth of the Treaty Oak sapling’s leaf canopy. The spiral of nine indigenous boulders, a sun eclipsing a moon, and a circling mist of water and blue light create a seating area during the day and an ethereal landscape at night.
In the case of Second Street, public art has been tied to the construction budget of the street’s redevelopment into a “Great Street” as defined by the Great Streets Master Plan. From the beginning, City leadership and the project team believed in the value of public art and provided two percent of the project’s construction funding for public art, with the goal of imparting a “distinct Austin sense of place and cultural identity.”
At the same time, the Austin Art in Public Places (AIPP) Program successfully facilitated ordinance revisions that incorporated the addition of streetscapes as eligible projects, raising the minimum arts funding requirement from 1 percent to 2 percent, and abolishing the previous $200,000 arts funding cap.
The AIPP Program then held a selection process for artists. A single artist would participate in the AIPP team, and would help identify public art themes, specific locations for art, and a public art plan for Second Street. The primary consultant, Copley Wolff Design Group, was selected through a separate RFQ process. Copley Wolff then chose artist Barbara Grygutis of Tucson, Arizona, to become a member of the design team. Together they identified “Rivers, Streams, & Springs” as the unifying Second Street art theme and developed a schematic design for the streetscape that reflects Austin’s unique relationship to it most precious natural resource—water.
Four local artists—Jill Bedgood, Ryah Christensen, Sun McColgin and Mark Schatz—were then selected to create corner streetscape treatments at the curbside intersections of Second Street and streets named for Texas rivers. The intersection artwork will interpret the social history and ecology of each river’s watershed (see sidebar).
The designs for these four streetscape corner treatments have been completed. They will be installed in coordination with the construction of the Great Streets sidewalks along Second Street.
Two other projects were conceived to be combination sculptures / water fountains. Aquifer, by Dallas artists Susan Magilow and Philip Lamb, will be a row of vertical tempered glass panels with a photographic image of the limestone-fault structure of an aquifer. As a person bends down to drink, the water images on the glass panels align. Drinking Grove by local artist Lars Stanley is a vertical grove of abstract, forged stainless-steel cypress trees with drinking fountain basins in the lower “canopy” reaches. Groupings of limestone rocks anchor the trees and form natural stone ledges.
Artist Deborah Mersky is incorporating Town Lake’s historic floods into artwork that will be part of the railing along the planned pedestrian walkway situated above Town Lake Trail, on the south side of Cesar Chavez. Another series of artworks will be integrated into the Lance Armstrong Bikeway, a six-mile route through the downtown area along Fourth Street. The artist team of Leah Davis, Robert Gay, and Jack Sanders (known collectively as NextProject) was selected to create integrated artwork along the route, providing a cohesive identity.
The Role of Arts and Culture in Austin’s Economic, Social, and Cultural Life
Public art results in economic benefits to businesses, restaurants, and retailers, and also the City of Austin general fund through sales tax. Sales of tickets to plays, performances, museums, live music venues, and festivals produce direct funds for the various arts producers. One of the most far-reaching economic benefits is the contribution that the arts and culture has on Austin’s identity as a creative, distinctive, and exciting place. Austin has become a destination for cultural tourism and a place attractive to skilled workers.
Current research has linked arts amenities and cultural vitality with a high concentration of talented human capital—powerful for positioning a city to attract businesses. Social benefits abound, as well. Arts activities bring people together as spectators or active participants. Such activities create social capital—“relationship networks that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit”—which nurtures and sustains diverse cultures and a community’s development.
Protecting and nurturing cultural aspects that enrich the lives of citizens is important to developing the diversity, tolerance, creativity, and access at the heart of any good community. Austin’s artists, arts organizations, and creative businesses contribute to the vibrancy, help define the identity, and sustain and grow Austin’s diverse cultures. The Second Street District and surrounding southwest quadrant of downtown Austin are dynamic, in short, because of the arts.
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