L’Estelle and Rainey’s Evolution

L’Estelle and Rainey’s Evolution

As far as Rainey bars go, I really like The Drafting Room at 88 1/2 Rainey.  Located on a plot of land right behind The Shore Condos in downtown Austin‘s Rainey Street District, and owned by inveterate downtown-er and Architect Craig Nasso since 1994 (read: WAY before Rainey Street was “cool”), the lot has evolved with the neighborhood and transformed what was an already a lovely home and office into two delightful, separate but intertwined (both are owned by Craig and Holly), pursuits of food and drink.

L’Estelle’s story on it’s website is actually much more eloquently written – check it out here.

If you don’t have time to read it all, here’s my favorite excerpt:

The architect of L’Estelle, then 26 years old, drove down Rainey Street in 1994 and spotted a little piece of “half-lot” that was merely a patch of dirt.  The fact that this lot was on a street named Rainey was especially of interest since his mother’s maiden name was Estele Rainey.  He bought it, nurtured it, planted every tree and bush and designed a plan for a long life on this little lot.  Twenty years ago, he built the back house as a live work office and decided to wait to build a front house when he could design it with a wife if he got married one day.

The architect eventually got married, but during that period, Rainey Street changed from a residential historic neighborhood into a bustling night life district. So the architect changed plans but held sensitively to his dream.  He designed and built a front house with his wife which would serve as a kitchen for the people and he converted his office into a quaint beer and wine bar – now the Drafting Room.  Together, they open their yard and their hospitality to all who enter, offering a real and authentic connection to the district, its history, and the comfort casual style of gathering under the stars with good drinks, food, and folks.  L’Estelle pays respect to their mother, Estele Rainey, the best cook in the family who serves as the advisor and contributor of many homestyle recipes for the preserves and sweets offered in the kitchen.

88 1/2 Rainey, Circa late 2012

88 1/2 Rainey, Circa late 2012

There’s truly a lot to love when it comes to what Craig and his wife Holly have carefully, tenderly created.  Their story is unique and their tie to the neighborhood is genuine; the architecture (and, hence, the vibe) is elegant, modern and comfortable; but, most importantly, the wine is great and the food is TO DIE FOR.

Bottom line: Go there.  You won’t regret it. And say hi to Holly and Craig when you visit; they are almost always there making sure things are running right.

p.s. – They are open for Sunday Brunch, too! Starts at 11am…

Drafting Room Facebook | L’estelle Facebook

Want a trip down memory lane?  Check out our 2012 Mega Post on Rainey with pics of what the street looked like not but 5 years ago…

Demolition Begins at Waller Park Place

Demolition Begins at Waller Park Place

More signals of progress at Waller Park Place.  Demolition of the site began this morning along the west side of Red River, and into Willow Street.

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Tall Downtown Towers Bankroll Austin

Tall Downtown Towers Bankroll Austin

At some point you have have sympathy for the cats who have to build the iconic set on KLRU’s Austin City Limits. During the show’s first two or three decades, the two-dimensional backdrop featuring Austin’s skyline didn’t require a whole lot of tweaks. But since the turn of the millennium, it seems that just about every other week a new tower rises over Bat City’s central core, sending the ACL crews back to the lumber yard in order to keep up.

After the official groundbreaking of The Independent condos on Monday, those poor souls will soon have their work cut out for them yet again. The 58-story residential tower will soon rise in its singular disjointed fashion as the brand new centerpiece of the downtown Austin skyline. Dubbed the “Jenga building” for the eye-grabbing way that it jukes and jives from the top of its parking plinth to the high heavens above, The Independent will be — as its developers are quick to remind you over and over and over again — the tallest residential building west of the Mississippi (And according to my own half-assed research, it may well also be the tallest one east of the Yangtze. Top that, Navy Town, Alaska!).

Yours truly had the fine privilege of crashing the groundbreaking party on Monday afternoon at W. 3rd Street and West Avenue. The crisp weather didn’t deter a crowd of well over a hundred people from packing into the large fenced off area just beneath the almost-finished Seaholm Residences building. It’s a testament to the explosive growth of Downtown that one can stand on the future site of a major high-rise, do a full 360-degree twirl, and not see a single building old enough to be know how to tie its own shoes yet.

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Monday’s affair was part-groundbreaking for this single project and part pep rally for Downtown Austin as a whole. In fact, it almost came off as a sort of quinceanera/coming-out ball for modern Downtown: The growth spurt is at full speed and maturity is finally at hand.

Mega-developer Perry Lorenz, who has a hand in The Independent, presided over the speechifying part of the ceremony and introduced former Mayor Kirk Watson as the visionary leader who helped turn Downtown from a low-rise, dusty pancake of government offices and industrial wastelands into the vibrant-if-slightly-pubescently-awkward urban neighborhood it is today.

For his part, Watson — and this may shock you, dear reader — did not demur from the praise. “We said we were going to change the way Downtown looked because it would make a difference in our way of life and it would make a difference in our economics and it would make a difference in our tax base,” Watson, in his folksy, ebullient manner, drawled. “We didn’t have very many people living Downtown. One of the things we wanted to do was send a message to the private sector that we were serious about this.”

Watson framed The Independent as a sort of culmination of those efforts. “Not only are seeing the fruition of that vision, but we’re making history by building something this big, this neat, this cool.”

And big, neat, and cool it is! Say what you will about the arresting design (Watson, a noted non-architect, said it looks “like a Lego project gone wild.”), but give it a few bonus points for defying the cream-and-blue-glass trend of its immediate neighbors. A downtown skyline is essentially the physical manifestation of an entire city’s face, a window into its soul if you will. New York City is as timeless and commanding as the Empire State Building. Houston is as bland, lazy, and inexplicably large as the JPMorgan Chase Tower. And Dallas… well… Dallas’ most prominent landmark is a giant money-colored phallus, so God bless ’em.

Here now in Austin, we’ll soon see a weird tower with unusual, possibly stoned posture just sort of lounging around and soaking the sun by Lady Bird Lake. It will be that hippie-meets-yuppie combo of old-school militant individualism and the new go-go era of tech-money urbanism. And unlike those other cities, Austin’s largest structure will be made up of homes, not offices that are abandoned for the suburbs after 5 p.m. An asinine writer might even go so far to suggest that The Independent’s most towering statement is that Downtown Austin is for l-i-v-i-n, man.

turning dirt

Further proof of that is seen in the extended list of other residential developments that have preceded The Independent in recent years in the southwestern section of Downtown near Shoal Creek. That club includes Spring condos, 360 Condominiums, Seaholm Residences, the Bowie, 5th and West, two or three of the various Amlis, the Monarch, and several more whose names I don’t have on instant or even gradual recall in my brain. The Independent is merely the latest step in the long march towards former Mayor Will Wynn’s pie-in-the-sky-for-its-time goal of getting Downtown’s population up to 25,000 residents. Granted, we’ve passed Wynn’s deadline for that goal last year, but if any of the predictions I made ten years ago came true, the War in Afghanistan would be over, cell phone cameras would be as laughable as New Coke, my journalism degree would have secured me reliable employment in a stable industry, and Sean Penn would be interviewing billionaire cartel kingpins for Spin magazine. So you see how perilous the field of prognostications can be.

The Independent is also a stellar example of how Downtown essentially bankrolls the rest of the city.

Mayor Steve Adler, who has a remarkable ability to cater his message to the audience at hand, told the crowd on Monday that Downtown is the “the city’s piggy bank in a very real sense.” To wit: The Independent, Adler said, will be worth a grand total of $18 million to the city’s affordable housing trust fund.

As the mayor explained, “That’s the equivalent of going to the voters in the city of Austin and asking for their approval in a bond election.”

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I try not to let stuff like that go to my head, but it’s awfully hard not to feel proud about my neighborhood essentially bankrolling the rest of the city. The large-scale densification from Rainey Street over to North Lamar has set the template for a true urban neighborhood where car ownership is an option rather than a necessity. The Independent will stand as the slightly awry exclamation point to Watson’s vision and the efforts of so many others who have worked to make it a reality. And if its likeness does make it onto the set of a certain long-running live music program on public television, it will serve as a reminder that behind the creative culture of this city stands the dynamic economic energy of an emerging urban success story.

Austin City Council: What Were They Thinking… in 1916

Austin City Council: What Were They Thinking… in 1916

At the beginning of 2016, the Golden Age of Downtown Austin augurs nary a hint of dinting nor dulling. From North Lamar to Interstate 35, constructions crane swoop across the landscape. On the streets, workers, residents, and visitors walk, bike, and drive to jobs, homes, shops, restaurants, and parks. The total energy of one of the most prosperous regions in the country is, by the laws of gravitational economics, concentrated right here in this urban core and, man, there’s a wild bustle to it all.

But, lo, this current period of dynamic fun n’ games was a long time in the making. And many of the same weirdo problems we face today have been bugaboos that generations of City Councils in their various forms have tried to take their respective whacks at. Now, thanks to the miracles of technology and open government (and the greater miracle that I can still afford an internet connection after the recent holidays), we can peer back in time at the political landscape of a century ago.

jan 13 1916

Austin City Council agenda item, Jan. 13, 1916

Behold above, a small sample of the Austin City Council agenda from Jan. 13, 1916. Long before the ongoing Waller Creek revitalization project, Mayor A.P. Wooldridge and his four white guy colleagues on the dais rassled with infrastructure issues on that flood-prone stream. The Council gave unanimous approval to designs for bridges to cross the stream from 1st Street (now Cesar Chavez Street) all the way up to 29th Street. Whether those bridges still exist or why existing bridges needed to be replaced to begin with are questions for another day. For the time being, one can only wonder why no one back then gave any thought to boring a colossal concrete flood-control tunnel 70 feet below the creek’s surface through which to channel tens of millions of gallons of water into the Colorado River, a friendly gesture that would’ve given the City a head start on that aforementioned revitalization project. Since this was pre-Capitol View Corridors, it would’ve saved us all a giant headache. Slackers.

feb 3 1916

Austin City Council agenda item, Feb. 3, 1916

As our current Council continues its graceless plod towards new regulations on transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft, with the full backing of Big Taxi, it’s worth remembering that not too many people were in a hurry to get Big Taxi in the first place. One hundred years ago in February, Mayor Wooldridge n’ The Boys received a petition calling for an ordinance “for the purpose of properly regulating local street transportation of persons for hire by ‘Jitneys’, automobiles, busses (sic), and other motor vehicles.” The petitioners claimed to have the signatures of 1,239 qualified voters — not bad for a city of, at the time, roughly 35,000 souls. But there were a few problems. Turns out that upon further review, city officials determined many signatures weren’t valid. Meanwhile, perhaps because they were spooked by a heavy-handed propaganda campaign launched by private interests, several hundred authors of valid signatures wrote in to request their removal from the petition. I cannot tell you when Council finally adopted a regulatory framework for taxi services, but I would guess that when they did, many people who called for cabs that night are still waiting patiently for their rides to show up.

Austin City Council agenda item, Jan. 6, 1916

Austin City Council agenda item, Jan. 6, 1916

Hey, here’s an item that demonstrates one big difference between the Austin of 100 years ago and the Austin of today: Land prices. In 1916, the City purchased the lot on the southeast corner of Red River and E. 11th streets for a cool $250. Today, TCAD values that land at just over $4.5 million. Now, as a professional journalist, I leave the math-doings to better minds, but I’ll take a rough crack at this and declare that if the City were to finally decide to sell this land today, it would stand to make a seventwentyteen-jillion percent profit.

Now, let’s scoot ahead a few years in our travels through the archives to take a moment to remember that this town hasn’t always been a model target of good-hearted snark. Often, in fact, even to this day, lots of municipal behavior deserves some degree of hot-fire derision. Like this piece of crap from Oct. 5, 1933:

Austin City Council agenda item, Oct. 5, 1933

Austin City Council agenda item, Oct. 5, 1933

Here we find a petition, “signed by thirty-eight citizens and property owners in the vicinity of the 1700 block of East Avenue, protesting the erection of a Negro business establishment at this location.” Certainly, these kinds of shenanigans should be expected when perusing the political archives of a southern city during the age of Jim Crow. However, I offer a counterpoint: What a bunch of dicks. It’s impossible to tell whether the business in question was technically in Downtown since this was before East Avenue was converted from a tree-lined boulevard into the concrete death-wall of segregation made manifest known as I-35, but it hardly matters. It’s also impossible to know what became of the petition since many similar items in Council agenda items end in similar referrals to some city agency with the ambiguous tone that a professional snarkster is eager to believe is a passive-aggressive way of saying, “This is garbage and the paper it’s written on is hardly fit for my doodles of Herbert Hoover with devil horns.” At any rate, this mess is a powerful reminder of how bad things were, how much worse they got (with the construction of a literal barrier to integration), and how much better things could yet be with the proper amount of progressive leadership.

My dream is for one day to have my friends’ grandkids trawling through the viz-deck archives of tomorrow’s Holo-Council and finding the hilariously antiquated transcripts of today’s leaders arguing against plans like Reconnect Austin.

Downtown Austin’s best days are still ahead of us, gang.

The Bridge Connection: Adding Grid To Downtown Without Roads

The Bridge Connection: Adding Grid To Downtown Without Roads

Take a look at the original layout of Austin — what we now call Downtown Austin, the grand cultural and economic gemstone in the greater Violet Crown — and you will see a street grid that is so thoroughly connected that it makes Frank Sinatra look like a friendless schlub from District 6.

But the intervening century-and-a-half has not been so kind to our great municipal waffle iron. Look at it now and witness so many strange ruptures that break apart once-fully connected streets.

old austin planSome fissures can be blamed on nature. Take the strange case of San Antonio Street at W. 7th, for example, an odd diversion necessitated by a fairly steep cliff.

Other fissures are entirely man’s fault — although you’re entirely excused for believing that the hulking Austin Convention Center and its permanent (and possibly growing!) dominion over Neches, W. 2nd, and W. 3rd streets is actually an act of divine terror.

Finally, there are fissures whose blame is shared by both nature and man. While nothing short of a zip-line* could patch San Antonio Street back together and, indeed, only divine terror could address the Convention Center, there are extremely exciting developments happening to stitch back together one of the most unfortunate examples of this third category, and on Thursday we saw one of the more satisfying fruits of those efforts.

shoal creek bridge

Shoal Creek Pedestrian Bridge at W4th & Rio Grande

Behold!  A newly-set pedestrian bridge spanning Shoal Creek at the convergence of W. 4th and Rio Grande streets.  After it arrived by truck from Alabama on Wednesday afternoon, Austin Public Works crews spent all day Thursday setting into place the $675,000 glorified gangplank  (which shouldn’t be confused with the nearby Butterfly Bridge that will soon reconnect W. 2nd Street across the creek).

The bridge is a key part of the Shoal Creek Greenbelt Trail Improvements Project, an ongoing $4.5 million effort to rehab a truly rad pedestrian and bike trail that runs *almost* the full of length of Downtown. Once the project is completed in October 2016, the missing parts of the trail south of W. 5th Street will be in place and you’ll be able to walk, jog, or cycle from Pease Park all the way to the Hike and Bike Trail on Lady Bird Lake without having to tangle with car traffic.

shoal-creek-bridge-map

On the street level, though, the new pedestrian bridge gives pedestrians and cyclists a new option to cross the creek in area that has seen and is continuing to see some of the most exciting development in town. Opposite of W. 4th and Rio Grande, will rise Austin’s tallest skyscraper, The Independent. Adjacent to that residential tower is the 360 Condominiums, the Green Water redevelopment site, the new Downtown Central Library, and Seaholm — a dense blend of residential, commercial, and cultural destinations.

Naturally, the new pedestrian bridge won’t be shouldering the load all by itself. Helping out is the existing pedestrian bridge over Shoal Creek on W. 3rd Street as well as that aforementioned Butterfly Bridge that will carry cars, pedestrians and cyclists).

Along with the newly created Walter Seaholm Drive and the eventual reconnection of West Avenue to W. Cesar Chavez, one key section of the Downtown grid is slowly reemerging from a badly needed cosmetic update that, as this section of town always does, badly puts the rest of Austin to shame.

-Caleb
(*Zip-line supporters can find the contact information for District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo’s office here.)