7 Ways To Make Downtown Austin Even Better

7 Ways To Make Downtown Austin Even Better

“Dude, I’ve got these ideas, so many ideas burnin’ through my skull…”

Living in downtown Austin is great and like anything else, over time, you begin to form ideas on what could really make it better.  Not all of these are my original ideas – but they are all notions that I would support.

1) Downtown Austin Needs A General Store

We need a friggin’ Target, not another boutique doggy day care!

We’ve written about both of these things before, and it seems like quite a few folks are hopping on the urban Target concept (Target Express) bandwagon.

Target Express

Rendering of a Target Express concept – which is geared toward city dwellers

2) Building Spirit

The Grand Illumination in Richmond Virginia

It would be cool to see downtown Austin condo buildings unite for certain holidays (or for other specific reasons / causes).  One idea that I’ve seen floating around is allowing units within the buildings to decorate their respective balconies for the winter holidays, and perhaps do a neighborhood wide contest. Politics aside, it would be wonderful to see a coordinated effort to get people into the general spirit.

photo by Jessica Kilma

photo by Jessica Kilma

Halloween is also a wonderful opportunity for residents of downtown Austin condos to invite families within the community and otherwise to enjoy traditional trick-or-treating. The Shore, in coordination with DANA, has participated in a small scale version of this with much success (Although, I’m a bit biased, as this is an effort that I personally started).  Honestly, I’m not sure who gets more from this particular event, the families or the residents.

3) Ice Cream Truck with a Downtown Route

This kid went to the Rick Perry school of eating.

I would LOVE for downtown to have a traditional ice cream truck that regularly drives around the neighborhood (and perhaps have a route with specific stops so people could plan their ice cream indulgence).

There’s a stationary stand that just popped up next to Downtown Burgers on Cesar Chavez across from the Austin Convention Center, but it’s just not quite the same.

Stationary Ice Cream Goodies Offered While They Last on Cesar Chavez, Across from the Convention Center

Stationary Ice Cream Goodies Offered While They Last on Cesar Chavez, Across from the Convention Center

4) Boat Taxis / Gondolas to Cross Ladybird Lake

This isn’t as crazy as it may seem.

Before the 20th century, getting from downtown Austin to the South bank of the colorado river was done largely by… ferries!  It’s true, and you can see a historic plaque telling you about it on the hike & bike trail as you pass the Four Seasons hotel.

Bring it back!  Sure would make it fun to check out the hot spots on the South Austin.

5) Swimming in Ladybird Lake


And, while we’re talking about the lake, I want to be able to swim in it, gosh dangit!  Full Kramer style.

Sure, it’s filled with trash, old steel rebar, and dog poo.  Those are solvable problems! Every few years Lake Austin is allowed to drain in order to clean up the duck weed.  So, what’s stopping this from happening on Lady Bird Lake and then get volunteers to remove debris?

KUT recently wrote an article explaining why it’s illegal to swim in the lake, and it’s chock full of great information.  The article, however, lacked any proposed solutions that would make the lake swimmable. :(

6) Non-terrifying Public Restrooms (Pay Per Use) like the Germans have


One of my favorite things about Germany is the preponderance of pay restrooms in public spaces (like rail stations, malls, etc).  McClean is among the most well-known of these types of facilities, and they are great. These restrooms require a very small fee (about $0.50) for use, and had attendants.  The restrooms were sparkling.  McClean’s motto is “clean, safe, and served” and that is 100% accurate in my experience.

I want some of these in public spaces downtown – like, real bad.  I am often petrified to use public restrooms in downtown Austin, and I can’t be the only one.

Recently, we discussed a new alley activation movement, and our friend and contributor Fred Schmidt highlighted the need for good, safe, public restrooms.  Seems like this idea could help make that a reality.

7) Personalized Mural Art for Condo Building Parking Spaces

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This one is a little out of left-field – but I just think it would be oh-so-cool.

With all the pretty new buildings popping up in downtown – the fact of the matter is that their corresponding garage spaces remain ugly – particularly on the “inside.”  Wouldn’t it be neat if each condo owner had the opportunity to work with an HOA approved artist to paint a personalized (within HOA set guidelines) mural in their parking space?  If a lot of owners got on board – it would absolutely TRANSFORM the ugliest parts of the condo buildings downtown into something unique, funky, and amazing.  Not to mention how it would be a wonderful opportunity to support local art in a truly cool way.

Some buildings are starting to get on board with general murals in their garages in “common” garage spaces (like entries and elevator bays – see above slideshow for a couple of Austin examples) but this would be an amazing extension of that effort in my opinion.  Many urban cities have been doing similar concepts for years – the concept I’m describing would be a slightly different version of what’s already being done (and, for the record, I would support these concepts, too!).

What ideas do you have for downtown Austin?

Your opinion matters: Seaholm Intake survey open until September 13

Your opinion matters: Seaholm Intake survey open until September 13

[Jump directly to the survey]

Construction is expected to wrap this winter for the Seaholm condos, with buyers who scored two years ago moving in shortly thereafter.  Some of you will remember way back in 2010 when former Austin City Council Member Chris Riley first publicly broached redeveloping the “other Seaholm — the derelict intake facility on Lady Bird Lake connected to the former Seaholm Power Plant.

Then, in 2013, there was a Seaholm Intake design competition.  Today, I’m really excited that the Parks and Recreation Department has announced two final, refined redevelopment proposals, and opened up a survey to hear from the public.


The top team will be awarded a Master Development agreement for a public-private partnership.  So, I really encourage Parks to publish the survey data.  Curiously, neither of the two final designs hark back to the former “top designs” released in 2013. But that is not to say that the two new final proposals are not merely more refined versions of the 2013 pitches, after structural and civil engineers got in the game.

Proposal 1: Intake at Lady Bird Lake

The first proposal seems very ambitious, striking and breathtaking. It would in reality redevelop the building into an entirely new structure. The metallic spiral corkscrewing through the facility, along with canopy roof, would create an iconic landmark that future generations would associate with Austin.

It would probably cost a pretty penny, but if the city could partially monopolize this space for special events, then I could forsee this being an attractive option.

I’m weighing it a “C” for pragmatic likelihood of getting off the ground.

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Proposal 2: A Place For The City

Compared to the other proposal, this feels like a very bland, unexciting project on the surface. But in terms of time to implement and overall cost, it seems very pragmatic. The exterior gets a face life and the interior basically becomes and exhibit hall and event venue, which is also monetizable.

I’m weighing it an “A” for pragmatic likelihood of getting off the ground.

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Convention Center Sprawl Gets Real

Convention Center Sprawl Gets Real

Last year we began tracking the City’s push to expand the Austin Convention Center.  Which is all well and good until they expressed interest in doing it by swallowing downtown blocks.

The City Council Economic Opportunity Committee is slated to receive an update on the Convention Center’s expansion plan on Monday Aug. 24 — according to the draft agenda

I and others will be interested to see if the briefing adds any clarity to City’s public plan to buy one of the last prime redevelopment sites along Cesar Chavez (Block 8) for the expansion. The real estate, in the southern shadow of the Four Seasons Residences west of the Convention Center, has no height restrictions.


News broke in July that White Lodging had acquired a land lease on the same property and proposed to build a hotel on the site. However, the development news — which appears to have been “placed” by White Lodging PR — is sparse on details.

How the two projects would actually marry seems very complex.  It would be a sophisticated negotiating move by White Lodging to make this play to entice the City Council to really put their foot on the gas and fast track a Convention Center expansion.

The CEO of White Lodging was quoted in the local paper as saying the company’s looks “forward to working collaboratively with the city to ensure this project complements, and hopefully expedites, the proposed convention center expansion.”

Anyone who has ever bought or sold a car or a puppy knows how to put the heat on by lobbing in another interested buyer/seller — even if they are half imaginary. I encourage our City Council to consider that their policy choices on this matter will forever impact the future of downtown Austin.

As my friend Marshall put it:


City of Austin putting downtown real estate on the market

City of Austin putting downtown real estate on the market

I haven’t seen this hit the mainstream news yet, but a large 1.6-acre lot, with prime frontage along Waller Creek corridor and a potentially buried I-35 is on the market.  But, it’s future is uncertain.

The lot, at 408 North IH-35 between 4th and 5th Streets, is owned by the City of Austin. The city acquired it in 2010 as a staging area for Waller Creek Tunnel project.

City Lot Birds Eye

According to city records, staff said they will bring a viable bidder forward to Mayor and Council by the end of the year.  Current City procedure requires the approval by City Council of any sales of a fee-simple parcel after staff has successfully identified a willing and able purchaser. Under standard procedure, City Council is not involved in the development of bid criteria for proposers.

There is a rumor among downtown aficionados that the Austin Fire Department has been eyeing the parcel ever since the city bought it, as place to relocate the firehouse at Brush Square Park.

Despite being limited by a Capitol View Corridor in terms of how tall it could be, it could be tall enough for me to believe that a fire station would be a bone-headed, shortsighted use of the land!

Through tax increment financing (TIF), Austin has bonded out millions to pull a long corridor of downtown out of the Waller Creek floodplain, and won public approval to develop the Sabine Street Promenade – which runs adjacent to the lot for sale.

Further, the importance of a world-class project moving into this slot crystallizes when taken into context of the still-enduring vision by the community to cut and cap I-35. In June, TxDOT officially got behind the idea of depressing I-35 about 25 feet below the frontage road level throughout its downtown Austin stretch, from south of Cesar Chavez Street to north of 15th Street.


I’ll be keeping an eye on this site, and am at least excited that the RFP process required by the City should help make sure that whatever project lands here contributes to the Waller Creek evolution.


A New Future For The Gilfillan House at 603 W 8th Street

A New Future For The Gilfillan House at 603 W 8th Street

The Gilfillan House at 603 West 8th Street is a 1905 structure that is on the National Register, a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark, and a City Landmark.  It’s tucked away in the northwest quadrant of downtown Austin, and the brand new luxury apartment building Seven towers over the historic structure. Located on the southwestern corner of 8th & Nueces, it has been a law office since the early 80’s.  It is currently zoned GO-H. The Gilfillan House is grand, but it’s seen better days.

The Gilfillan House-downtown-austin-real-estate-2-750

The historic Gilfillan House with the new Seven Apartments in the background

The site was most recently purchased in early June (with a note of almost $3.6MM), and the new ownership (headed up by Rene O. Campos – a real estate investor in Dallas) would like to zone it to DMU-H as part of a restoration of the historic structure. 

The much more flexible DMU-H rezoning would also allow the new owner to utilize the restored structure both for office use and for events such as weddings, receptions, business meetings, luncheons, fundraisers (among other things).  The owner’s representatives say that this type of flexibility would lend itself to more active uses of the site, and introducing more people to the historic structure (and fill in downtown Austin’s seeming increasing need for proper venue space).

Why is the Gilfillan House worth preserving and sharing, anyway?

A little research at the Austin History Center brought me to some interesting information:

This residence was constructed in 1905 for William L. Gilfillan (d 1932), one of the founders and directors of the Austin National Bank, designed by the prominent Austin architect Charles H. Page, Jr., the two-story brick home reflects a mixture of popular Pre-World War I architectural styles, including Mission Revival and the Prairie School.  In 1931, the home was purchased by Julius G. Knape, a Swedish stonemason and contractor.

Recorded Texas Historic Landmark – 1981

The Austin National Bank was founded in 1890 and built their second generation space at 507 Congress in 1895 (507 Congress doesn’t exist as an address anymore, it’s been absorbed).   The bank kept growing and relocating until its merger with First International Bancshares Inc in 1981.

Here’s a photograph of the 1895 location on Congress – designed by Charles H. Page.

Newning, Charles A., editor. Texas Industrial Review, Volume 01, Number 03, October, 1895, Book, October 1895; (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth39133/ : accessed August 05, 2015), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Austin History Center, Austin Public Library, Austin, Texas.

Newning, Charles A., editor. Texas Industrial Review, Volume 01, Number 03, October, 1895, Book, October 1895; (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth39133/ : accessed August 05, 2015), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Austin History Center, Austin Public Library, Austin, Texas.

So, lots of history, with lots of Austin’s early movers and shakers. We believe that it’s worth preserving and celebrating many of these structures and all of their stories. And we tend to think integrating the history with a current use is often better than a restoration that creates a well-preserved, but unapproachable (and generally unappreciated and unutilized) time-capsule. History is only useful if people actually know about it.

We personally love the juxtaposition of the old and the new that’s occurring in parts of downtown Austin, and are generally supportive of efforts to activate historic spaces so that the public can access them in a more meaningful way.  If done intelligently and intentionally, flexible commercial use of some historic buildings could be a great way to accomplish preservation, increase the functionality of prime downtown Austin real estate, and educate more folks about Austin’s rich history.