Friends, it took a minute, but we’re finally just months away from the start of a momentous project that promises to further ratchet up the quality of life here in Downtown Austin.
After nearly two decades of fitful effort and planning, work is set to start this June on tremendous upgrades to Republic Square Park.
Situated on Guadalupe Street between 4th and 5th streets, you probably know it now as the place where all the buses stop, or the joint with the grass and the trees where you wait in long lines for the shuttle to ACL Fest, or the site with the weekly farmers’ market. By virtue of its central location, the park sees a ton of traffic each day, but its lack of amenities means that it doesn’t get a ton of use. Right now, Republic Square Park is essentially a verdant plaza of the largely lifeless Federal Courthouse directly to its west, and eye candy for Plaza Lofts to the east.
The renovation project, of course, aims to change that by redesigning a space that will be a daily destination for downtown residents, workers, and other visitors to the area wanting to bask in the warming glow of my transcendent glory. Previous iterations of the plan envisioned space for food trucks, but I learned on Wednesday from the fine cats at the Downtown Austin Alliance — one of the leading partners on the project, along with the City of Austin Parks Department and the Austin Parks Foundation — that we’ll instead see a permanent building on the park’s north side that will house an as yet undetermined food vendor. Also included in that structure will be that crucial element for life-sustaining all-day park enjoyment: Restrooms.
I rapped with the DAA’s Vice President of Planning, Melissa Barry, about the project on Wednesday afternoon. She told me her organization will control operations and management at the park, which includes programming. She said the idea is to “activate the edges of the park while also creating a well managed interior lawn.” The current lawn, she said, “is not set up for success.”
Barry also told me that the programming will include a mix of special events such as the farmers markets and the summer film screenings, but also action that will drive people there on a daily basis. I personally cringe at the thought of more spaces for yoga in the park, but I’m a curmudgeon whose cold heart can’t help but thaw a little bit at the thought of some kind of regular activity happening under the very same oak trees that shaded the original auction for downtown lots back in 1839.
Of course, some naysayers and hand-wringers are inevitably going to worry about the homeless Austinites who make up a significant number of the park’s current daily users. While no one is pushing anyone out of the square, Barry did tell me that safety will be a top priority. To that end, she said, the DAA will have a full-time staffer at the park everyday to ensure the comfort of all visitors. She also noted that the extra eyes and ears of folks working in the food stand will help keep things as family friendly as possible.
Now, you might be thinking: “Come on, Caleb, help me picture this strange new future of abstract parks of tomorrow.” Can do! Just train your memory back to your last visit of Madison Square Park in New York City. It’ll kinda be like that, except with slightly different vegetation and probably not a Shake Shack (but maybe a P. Terry’s?). Or, for an example a little closer to home, picture Houston’s Market Square, the local example that Barry told me was a blueprint of sorts (I’ve never been, but I’m sure it’s lovely. I hope it’s lovely).
It might bum some transit advocates to hear that none of the renovation plans appear to account for any sort of potential preparation for a future light rail station or some such, but Capital Metro is at least planning on upgrades for the three bus stops on the park’s perimeter. Riders at the busiest stop in Downtown (and presumably all of Austin) can expect better surfacing, lighting, and short “leaning walls” to rest their weary bones upon. As for whether those walls would actually be a barrier to separate transit riders from other park users, Capital Metro executives assured me that wasn’t the case (indeed, renderings depict the walls to be about three-feet high, just low enough for one water-colored bard to perch upon and pluck his guitar).
Capital Metro’s board is set to approve the slice of funding the agency will throw into the renovation effort later this month. Other stakeholders are also lining up to pony up, and if everything goes as scheduled and ground breaks this June, the work should be done by summer of 2017. Which, by my estimation, will be plenty of time to finally find out what’s happening at Republic Square Park’s in-perpetual-limbo neighbors, the U.S. Post Office site on the north, and Hotel Zaza to the immediate east.