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.)
Signals of progress at Waller Park Place

Signals of progress at Waller Park Place

Small signals are often precursors of BIG news.

This past weekend, fencing was observed being erected around the site of Waller Park Place, the largest private development ever proposed in downtown Austin.  Demolition permits were issued back in August for the vacant structures along Red River Street.  The new fencing is a sure sign that site prep is about to begin.

The 3 acre site in the Rainey Street District stretches from Cesar Chavez to Davis Street, hugging the eastern bank of Waller Creek along the way.

-Jude

waller-park-place-demolition-signal2

waller-park-place-demolition-signal1

 

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Maufrais

Maufrais

[Editors note: I’ve always wanted to know the story behind the ubiquitous “Maufrais” stamped into the sidewalks of downtown Austin.  Rob Hafernik wondered the same back in 2008.  Below we’re reposting Rob’s article, originally published at Texas Escapes, and reveals some history about one of Austin’s most long-lived and mysterious brands… a legacy that began over a century ago.]

I’m a curious kind of guy. When I walk the dog, I wonder about the things I see along the way.  Everyone in Austin is familiar with the word “Maufrais”, but almost no one knows what it means. There are poems about it, and blog entries wondering about it. There are even people who think “Maufrais” is as mysterious as crop circles.

MaufraisSidewalkAustinTX1RHafernickThe reason for this mystery is that the word is stamped into half of the concrete in Austin. Just in the space of one good dog walk, I see the word a dozen times or more. Now, it doesn’t take a genius to figure that it must be the name of a concrete company, but enquiring minds want to know more. These days, enquiring minds are as addicted to search engines as Wimpy is addicted to hamburgers.

[Read more…]

Historic Downtown Sampson Building Will Host New Co-Working Space

Historic Downtown Sampson Building Will Host New Co-Working Space

Co-working in downtown Austin has arrived, and competition is delivering flexible work spaces that are incredible.

WeWork is set to expand through to two additional floors (close to 1,000 new desks) in their current building right around the time of the opening of the 25,000 square foot Galvanize space in the Seaholm development.  Capital Factory, the original downtown Austin co-working/incubator/accelerator concept, is a major player in the market, as well.

Those large concepts look impressive, but aren’t a fit for everyone looking for a quieter space to be productive.  The result is that there are new co-working concepts leveraging smaller spaces in historic buildings.

As I walk into the space on the top floor of the Sampson Building on Congress Avenue, I am immediately struck by the quiet – audibly and visually.  The lack of distraction, hectic bustle, and co-working “flair” sets a much different tone than what I’m used to seeing in the other downtown Austin concepts (wework and galvanize), and the atmosphere is just one of the ways Open-Source Co-Working is trying to set itself apart from its larger competitors.

I’m a sucker for a historic building.  The patina and beauty that comes from being in a building like the [Read more…]