Austin’s Second Street District is a six-block infill and redevelopment project located north of Town Lake and along the south edge of downtown Austin, Texas. The city’s vision for the project is broad: “to enhance the identity and image of downtown Austin as a civic and cultural destination for residents, visitors, and businesses while preserving and enlivening Austin’s sense of place.” More specifically, the Second Street District Streetscape Improvement Project (SSDSIP) calls for “the inclusion of a critical mass of retail (and other pedestrian-oriented uses) linked by a coherent and uniquely identified, pedestrian environment… linking two important civic destinations—the new City Hall and the Convention Center Complex—along what will become downtown’s key shopping or ‘pedestrian-dominant’ spine: Second Street.”
With a goal of over 168,000 square feet of retail space mixed with office, hotel, civic, and mostly high-end, high-rise condo and apartment developments, the Second Street District is being positioned as Austin’s core downtown retail area. Taking into account adjacent projects and the city’s goal of making a contiguous, pedestrian-oriented connection between the Convention Center on the east and Lamar Boulevard on the west, the District’s impacts and influence are considerably larger than its official six-block footprint. The city owns five of the six blocks, also enabling the implementation of its vision without the haste that often arises from market forces.
While its architecture has been defined as “eclectic modern urban style,” it also has a distinctly Austin flavor, in part because of a series of sustainability goals—including principles of urban forestry and the use of locally available materials in construction—outlined in guiding documents.
So far, four full city block streetscapes have been completed—two Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) office buildings on Blocks 2 and 4, Austin’s new City Hall and Public Plaza on Block 3, and the seven-story AMLI apartment building on Block 20.
Development of Block 22 is currently underway and Block 21 is expected to begin in 2007. The SSDSIP scope, discussed below, will extend the Second Street District streetscape improvements four additional block lengths eastward (beyond the 6-block district), from Colorado to Trinity, and will include two block lengths along Brazos and Colorado north and south of Second Street. According to City of Austin project sponsor Pollyanne Melton, Phase 2 of the SSDSIP will begin construction in January 2008 and be complete in 15 months.
The Second Street District results from both linear and sequential city visioning and planning processes that brought together local and national experts with the public at large to craft a series of policies and plans first addressing Austin’s livability, then its downtown design, and finally the Second Street District itself.
In 1989, Austin’s Downtown Commission received approval from City Council to invite a Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team (R/UDAT) of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to Austin. Since 1967, the AIA’s R/UDAT program has used volunteer technical experts like architects and urban planners to demonstrate the importance of urban and regional planning, stimulate local public action, and improve physical design throughout the nation and in specific locales.
Less than two years later, a three-day R/UDAT planning charrette was conducted with more than 800 Austinites that “assessed conditions and community interest in Downtown Austin and provided a framework for implementing actions to revitalize Austin’s vital central core.” The resulting report, RUDAT * Austin, spawned a set of implementation actions outlined in R/UDAT Austin Implementation: A Call to Action, published in May 1992.
Approved by the Austin City Council as a “guide for implementing downtown Austin revitalization,” A Call to Action provided detailed recommendations in the areas of urban design, the natural environment, community issues, cultural arts, transportation, economic development, and the creation of a downtown management organization.
The Downtown Austin Alliance—“a partnership of individuals and businesses devoted to promoting and maintaining a safe, clean, attractive, accessible, and fun Downtown environment, making Downtown the destination for Austinites and visitors”—was subsequently born of the 1993 creation of a Downtown Austin Public Improvement District. Funding for the Alliance comes from a special assessment on privately owned large properties within the District.
In 1996, the Alliance adopted the idea of “great streets,” and began a Great Streets program with the goal of improving “the quality of downtown streets and sidewalks, aiming ultimately to transform the public right-of-ways into great public spaces.” Later that year, Austin voters approved dedicating $5 million in bonds to the new Austin Great Streets Program.
In 1997, an Austin R/UDAT conference was held that further provided a short list of downtown revitalization projects, and in 2000 the R/UDAT held another conference, in which then-Mayor Kirk Watson said, “The city’s waterfront site is no longer the most forlorn patch of Downtown. This six block area will include a new City Hall, three CSC buildings with 3,500 new downtown employees, two blocks of residential development, street-level retail, and nearby, the new Austin Museum of Art and an Intel software research facility. Austin gets an A for creating, in a very short time period, a Downtown Digital District with all the elements of a Great Downtown.”
While the “Digital” (and Intel) portion of the District has not quite lived up to expectations, Austin’s initiatives to redevelop downtown continued in two ways: through the adoption of Downtown Austin Design Guidelines in May 2000, and through the city’s ongoing Great Streets Program.
That same year, ROMA Design Group was hired by AMLI Residential to develop a retail and streetscape concept plan, which proposed converting Second Street to a two-lane (one lane each way) shopping street, with parallel parking located on the north side, adjacent to a 32-foot-wide sidewalk with a double-row of street trees. The resulting Austin Second Street Retail District – District Streetscape Plan was published in early 2000.
After extending the District Streetscape Plan boundaries eastward to the Convention Center in July 2001, the Second Street Retail District Plan was subsequently incorporated into the Downtown Austin Great Streets Master Plan, which was completed in December 2001 by urban design consultant Black & Vernooy + Kinney Joint Venture. ROMA Design Group’s concept plan was further detailed, and specific siting criteria within the public right of way, such as street and pedestrian lighting, were established.
The Great Streets Master Plan is based on the Downtown Austin Design Guidelines adopted the previous year, including:
Based on Second Street Retail District work, the design consultants suggested six guiding principles for the Great Streets Program, identified in the Master Plan itself:
Additionally, a number of “Principles and Elements” were included, ranging from pedestrian orientation to sidewalks, roadway lane width to bike lanes, street furniture to street trees, and public art to enhanced key transit stops.
Of three street typologies identified in the Master Plan, the “Pedestrian Dominant Street” was not only based on the concepts already created for the Second Street Retail District, but by referencing Second Street specifically, it guided that the District be developed as such:
Over the next three years, the city conducted engineering, archaeological, and historical studies. The former resulted in the creation of prototypical design solutions for handicap access and intersection geometry, resolved utility and tree conflicts, and prepared plans for grading, drainage, utility relocation, traffic management, construction phasing, and cost estimates. The latter explored the history of the corridor, which includes 19th and 20th century railroad and industrial uses, a red light district, underground vaults, and a large Hispanic population up to the 1920s.
Second Street District Streetscape Improvement Project
The Pedestrian Dominant Street typology of the Great Streets Master Plan is being implemented in the Second Street District through the Second Street District Streetscape Improvement Project, which began in July 2003 when the city selected a design team led by Copley Wolff Design Group of Boston. The SSDSIP differs, however, from the Great Streets Master Plan:
The project’s Request for Design Consultant Qualifications clearly set forth the streetscapes’ intent in five areas:
The project is being implemented in two phases:
The first phase resulted in transitioning Second Street from one-way, westbound traffic from Brazos Street east to its end at San Antonio, to two-way traffic from Brazos Street west to Colorado, spanning the major Congress Avenue / Second Street intersection. It was completed just prior to the opening of the new City Hall in November 2004.
The second phase design is now nearly complete, with 32-foot-wide sidewalks and a double row of street trees on the north side of the street, providing “ample, shaded space for sidewalk cafes next to store fronts. Between the double row of trees, a path of large-size pavers, used to enhance walkability and wheelchair user comfort, meanders like a dry stream bed, inviting a leisurely stroll through the retail district.” The District has also implemented the Great Streets light pole, “uniquely designed for Austin’s downtown… [that] elegantly reduce[s] clutter in the streetscape by consolidating into one system roadway and pedestrian lighting as well as traffic and pedestrian signals, street signs/wayfinding systems and special events banners.” The Street’s south side takes advantage of similar streetscaping, but at an 18-foot width.
Improvements along Cesar Chavez Boulevard from Brazos to San Antonio include widening of the street and creation of an esplanade with an alley of trees along the southern curb line, forming a transition from the Second Street District's built fabric to Town Lake Park. Cesar Chavez will be rebuilt first, with Second following in January 2008. Second Street improvements are projected to be completed by April 2009.
Streetscape, plaza, and other public infrastructure maintenance around City Hall is funded by a tax-increment financing reinvestment zone that encompasses four blocks in the Second Street District.
The Role of Public Art
“Rivers, Streams and Springs” is the Second Street District streetscape project’s theme, and ties into the city’s Art in Public Places program. Accordingly, where Second Street intersects the north/south streets—which are named for Texas rivers like the Brazos and Colorado—special paving treatments with medallions that interpret the social history and ecology of each river’s watershed are being created and installed by local artists.
Additionally, a “Spring” sculptural zone including a functioning drinking fountain will be located between San Jacinto and Brazos Streets, and a larger-scale “Spring” is being implemented in partnership with Austin Water Utility, at the intersection with Congress Avenue.
Two percent of the SSDSIP construction budget has been set aside for the “design and implementation of such context-appropriate civic art.” Other “public/private partners” are being pursued for additional “water-related art opportunities” along Second Street, with $200,000 in developer pledges already obtained.
Implementing the Plans
While the plans and projects establish a coherent vision for the Second Street District, according to Austin redevelopment project manager Fred Evins, they do not set any requirements for sustainability measures such as energy efficiency and renewable energy use, or specific percentages for retail or residential uses. “Block-by-block the city has negotiated with developers to include project elements that further the city’s vision,” said Evins.
As owners of five of six blocks, Austin was able to use an array of funding and other civic mechanisms to support development under the Great Streets Program and Streetscape Implement Project guidelines. For example, the city was able to provide expedited permitting, development fee waivers, project-area design standards, and funding for streetscaping, landscaping, and parking on the two CSC buildings on either side of City Hall completed in 2001 (Blocks 2 and 4). The city also constructed a connecting tunnel and funded improvements to city property and rights-of-way.
During negotiations with Computer Sciences Corporation on its development of Blocks 2 and 4, the city seized the opportunity to further its vision for the district and paid CSC $9.3 million towards the design, construction, and sub-leasing of retail shell spaces on these blocks. AMLI Austin Retail, in collaboration with HSM Urban Partners, has been selected as the retail developer, and the retail sub-leases have been assigned to the developer, which is responsible for funding the development costs associated with leasing and finishing out the Block 2 and 4 retail spaces, according to Evins.
On Blocks 21 and 22, however, the developers will be responsible for the construction, leasing, and management of the retail spaces in their mixed-use projects. The city did, though, agree to lease terms “that made AMLI’s mixed-use development financially viable” on Block 22. HSM Urban Partners is under contract to provide retail consulting services on Blocks 20, 21, and 22 (as well as Blocks 2 and 4), to ensure a coherent retail mix and produce a viable destination retail center. "We believe a strong retail presence is just as important as the streetscape improvements in making the district successful," says Evins.
Mixed Uses: Current and Proposed
Austin’s goal for Second Street District is 168,000 square feet of ground-level “destination” retail. Blocks 2 and 4—the retail uses in the CSC buildings—also have a goal of 30 percent local business inclusion. Combined, the two six-story buildings have 350,000 square feet of office space, serving both CSC and Silicon Laboratories, which subsequently purchased CSC’s interest in Block 2.
Block 20, AMLI Downtown, features a 220-unit apartment project above 43,000 square feet of retail and restaurants. AMLI Residential has broken ground on an 18-story high-rise residential project two blocks west of AMLI Downtown (Block 22). It will have 231 units with 35,000 square feet of street-level retail and above-ground parking. Five percent of these units will be designated as affordable to households whose income is equal to or less than 80 percent of the median income.
The new 101 Colorado project, now called Altavida, is being developed by MetLife, Inc., and designed by HKS, Inc., of Dallas. It has recently broken ground on Second Street and Congress Avenue. The 36-story tower will include 258 rental units and a five-level parking garage with a ground-floor lobby and retail space. Six three-story townhomes will front Cesar Chavez Street.
The 200 Congress project—at the northwest corner of the 2nd Street / Congress Avenue intersection—will be a mixed-use tower developed by Benchmark Land Development and designed by Ziegler Cooper Architects. The 700-foot building will have 250 luxury condominiums above retail space at the Congress Avenue / Second Street corner.
In early 2007, construction is expected to begin on Block 21—the vacant lot across from the new City Hall. It is anticipated that this project will be a 32-floor high-rise featuring a 225-room luxury hotel, 125 condominiums, a 1,000-seat “Austin City Limits” venue, and an expanded Austin Children’s Museum. In total, it will encompass more than 780,000 square feet.
Other new projects adjacent to Second Street District include revitalization of the historic Republic Square park and a new Federal Courthouse two streets north; redevelopment of the 1950s-era, Art Deco Seaholm Power Plant into a “high quality, mixed-use cultural attraction” across Shoal Creek to the west; the 44-story “360,” a 432-unit high-rise residential tower above 15,000 square feet of ground-floor retail and restaurant space, overlooking Shoal Creek from Third Street and Nueces; construction of a new Austin Museum of Art; renovations to the Austin Music Hall; and development of the Ballet Austin Butler Dance Education Center, all within a few blocks of the District. View all downtown Austin emerging projects.
Austin City Hall
The new Austin City Hall and Public Plaza—four stories and 115,000 square feet, and featuring a distinctive design by architect Antoine Predock in which there are few 90-degree angles—opened in November 2004 to local applause. With the goal of being Austin’s civic landmark for generations, the $56 million building also received a “gold” rating in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council. It is truly a building fitting of Austin’s eclectic nature, sense of place, and spirit of sustainability.
Energy and environmental features include:
City Hall is not the only building tied into Austin Energy’s district cooling system—most of the Second Street blocks, at least the retail and commercial portions, also take advantage of the energy-efficient system.
One measure of success this early in project development is the initial response to retail, especially local shops. Recent articles in the Austin American-Statesman point to the risks paying off: “It’s the best business decision I’ve ever made,” said Jane Vanisko McCano, owner of Shiki, a women’s clothing store, in a December 2005 article. Cami Cobb, owner of the apparel store Estilo, is more cautious but still optimistic: “I think we’re just at the beginning. The district definitely has a ways to go, but the area has a lot of momentum.”
According to the article, local residents have been highly loyal to their nearby shops and restaurants, and hotels “have been great about sending shoppers their way.” That equates to a healthy mix of locals and tourists.
Elizabeth Serrato, owner of the jewelry and accessories boutique Eliza Page, concludes, “We know that it’s going to take a while until everything is complete. And there’s always a risk involved in staring anything new. But the response has been wonderful.”
Given that city leaders hope to draw as many as 20,000 new residents to downtown Austin in the next ten years—though there are some concerns about the feasibility of housing that many new residents—and provided the growth of nearby hotels, conferences, and entertainment venues, the future for retail looks promising.
Occupancy rates for residences and commercial office space—another measure of success—are not readily available, but the current demand across downtown for new spaces of both types denotes that they are likely to be successful, as well.
Austin’s Second Street District is a powerful example of how community vision and collaboration can help redefine a place, and then the places beyond. By incorporating principles of sustainability, building from the spirit of the place itself, and taking an active part in project design and buildout, the city has ensured that its goal of creating a premier, mixed-use retail spine in downtown will succeed.
For more information, visit Second Street District at www.2ndStreetDistrict.com.
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