Don't 2nd Street My City

Michael Barnes at Out & About had some musings yesterday on "What would it cost?" to repave and revamp all of the sidewalks in downtown Austin to look like the AMLI-fied 2nd Street District. At first blush, one can get drunk off the twinkling strands of lights, slender, adolescent trees and mini-benches lining the curbs of the self-defined Wine & Cheese District. With a price tag of an estimated $250M to replicate these "Great Streets" across downtown Austin, Barnes suggests that perhaps the same amount of federal stimulus money bound for flyovers and freeways might best be spent on this project instead -- encouraging "density, green transportation and development of small businesses."

But beyond the glow of the W's show room floor and the silk tunic society, I can't imagine Austin being improved by such improvements. Perhaps it's just my 78704 roots, before the Barton Springs Road trailer parks were cool, but old Austin lives in its craggy concrete; the old bricked bones of 6th Street rising up through trodden asphalt. Congress Avenue's granite sidewalk pavers act as the red carpet leading up to the Capitol building -- once at an Obama rally I discovered the word "PEACE" scrawled into the concrete on 11th and Brazos. The Stairs of Doom on the corner of 4th and Colorado act as the ultimate field sobriety test for anyone wearing more than 2-inch heels or more than two drinks into their night. Fanning off of a wobbly concrete sidewalk big enough for passerbys and late-night pizza fans sitting outside the Roppolo's cart -- La Condessa wouldn't dream of letting these schleps through her doors. Alleyways and parking lots, mashed together by time and erosion, sometimes contain musicians drumming on empty paint buckets or tin cans. The homeless congregate on street corners in growing numbers, dotting Wooldridge Square like cattle grazing in an urban field. They've answered your calls for density.

The 2nd Street District, Kate Spade-quaint and suitable for the condo-dwellers, has its place. For the rest of Austin, it's hardly affordable, hardly a necessity (there's never been a time I needed to buy snowboarding gear in downtown Austin) and hardly representative of the majority of Austin. And while paving over the grime and gunk of downtown might bring a few boutique furniture stores to the area, the true grooming of Austin's downtown streets needs to start with addressing affordability and homelessness -- two issues which, increasingly, go hand in manicured hand.

19 Response to "Don't 2nd Street My City"

  • Amerloc Says:

    "hand in manicured hand."

    Even total jerks like a well-turned phrase, and you set this one up nicely and carried it off well. Thanks.

    And no, I didn't miss your point. Agree that gentrification isn't the answer. Even if it does provide more places to get that manicure.

  • Anonymous Says:

    Austin doesn't get affordable housing. Austin does get spending money on downtown and requiring developers and others to spend money for amenities. Whether we like these things or not, and I do like some of it, this works against affordable housing.

    One new rule I'm baffled by is the new energy audit requirement. Sounds good doesn't it. Who could be against it. It adds $400 or so to the cost of a house. Depending on the market, the buyer or seller will eat the cost. Does it really take $400 dollars to tell you that an older house is going to be less energy efficient? Wouldn't it be better just to require the buyer or seller to spent $400 to actually make something more efficient.

    Sorry I got off the sidewalk, but even a silly speculation about spending $250 million ..... well you know.

  • Anonymous Says:

    You and your ANC cronies are the worst kind of hypocrites. You pander to your neighbors by invoking the affordable housing pathos. The more you advocate for no growth the more expensive your own real estate remains. God forbid you entertain affordable housing in 78704 or 78703.

    I expect this will be moderated, so i wish you to remain comfortable in your myopic 78704 world

  • M1EK Says:

    Anonymous, that was rather excessively harsh, don't you think?

    Rachel, I don't think Michael meant "expensive boutiques"; I think he meant "nice wide sidewalks with trees".

    But the general point is important too: the rich people in condos shopping at 2nd street create a lot of tax revenue to spend on things like affordable housing and social services. Without such monies, Austin's social services budget would look more like, uh, Round Rock's. Downtown subsidizes the rest of the city by something like an 8-to-1 margin (paying $8 in taxes for every $1 spent on their infrastructure, even with the expensive sidewalks).

  • FUBAR Says:

    Anonymous - if you expected that to be moderated just because you're rude, it probably means that you're you're not a regular reader of this blog. :)

  • cyrus Says:

    MIEK's sycophantic dogma has been dispensed with several times. There are plenty of condos and rich people in Austin. Enticing more of them to move here has long since become part of the problem and whatever added revenue they may generate gets eaten up quickly by yet more abatements and projects directed to the new urbanists who increasingly control the flow and use of public monies in this town. The middle class has been effectively shgut out of both the process and the fruits of their own labor.
    While I know for a fact that Rachel likes her compact central urban lifestyle as much as any of them, she at least seems to understands it's limits in a Texas city of nearly 1 million.

  • Pat Says:

    How about some decent sidewalks up and down South Lamar too, preferably more than, say, 6 inches from 45 MPH traffic?

  • M1EK Says:

    cyrus, you charming sack of fertilizer, did you miss the "7 of every 8 dollars generated downtown is spent in the rest of the city" point, or what?

  • Libby at Aurora Primavera Says:

    To Crankypants Anonymous who accused MR of being myopically 78704. Rachel, through no fault of her own, grew up in the Zilker neighborhood. She attended Zilker Elementary during a time when more than 40% of the students were on reduced/free lunch status (they lived in high density apartments along South Lamar that have since been torn down or converted to condos). The cultural and socioeconomic diversity of this school and its formative effects on Rachel are one of the reasons she advocates so authoritatively on behalf of her causes. As an adult, Rachel has lived in non-04 neighborhoods--she has not lived an insular life. As someone who has witnessed the immediate and sudden impact of rapid development on her native city, Rachel is more than qualified to observe and report on this struggle.

  • cyrus Says:

    No, M1EK, I just understand that your favorite 'statistic' - if we can charitably call it that - is largely irrelevant to the discussion at hand, and in any case, is used in a vacuum, much like anti-immigrant knobs like to quote #s such as "29% of those in [insert state here]prisons are illegals!", etc...

    The bootom line, M1EK - and what you continually refuse to acknowledge - is that revenue SHOULD be generated more heavily in a CENTRAL BUSINESS DISTRICT and used for the betterment of the entire city (i.e., the folks who work in it).

    People who live out side the bubble and have the temerity to make less than ~$80k/year and who *gasp* have to DRIVE to work, school and shopping, etc., don't really care about fancy sidewalks downtown, and $250M will naturally seem like an ungodly waste of public funds to them when their schools are getting crappier. They don't need more rich people to subsidize them, they don't need handouts from the city. They just need a decent home in a decent neighborhood for less than $200,000, and they'll be fine.

  • M1EK Says:

    Cyrus, you still don't get it; that expensive sidewalk on 2nd street has helped generate even more of that 8-for-1 return that pays the bills to keep the property tax rate on suburban homes in Austin artificially low (yes, you heard me; our RATE, at least, is lower than in most other Texas cities).

    It also, again, pays the bills for everything else, including a bunch of stuff you might like.

    Without the sidewalks and condo dwellers, would the CBD continue to generate 8-for-1? Not a chance. Maybe 2-for-1 on a good day.

  • Felicia Says:

    There is a place for everything, whether well-placed or not, or whether someone else thinks it is well-placed or not. Yes, the 2nd Street district is a lovely visual place, however the parking may scare people off, regardless of the nicely paved walkways and gelato. The steep stairs on 4th are a nightmare for any of those afraid of even the slightest heights, however, its a great reason to grab onto a friend or stranger (yep, it's been done). There is no need to spend a ton of money on revamping what doesnt need to be revampes, yet at the same time even the oldest sidewalks need to be repaired. I would like some areas to look cleaner and be more polished. To keep a city alive, there needs to be change. An old city that stays old, just dies.

  • el_longhorn Says:

    Great post, Rachel. I must confess, though, that when all the talk of what to spend the stimulus money on started, one of my first thoughts was "why not just build sidewalks all over the city?" My neighborhood does not have them, and it is my #1 complaint - hard to walk the dog, hard to walk with the kids, always dodging cars. I remember living on 48th and Red River when they built the sidewalk on Red River - it was a different neighborhood after the sidewalk went in, much better to walk around.

    Anyway, great writing on this post.

  • FUBAR Says:

    Sheesh, no wonder nobody ever wants to wander into an open discussion when the "Austin became exactly as it should be the day after I moved here, and I will resist all attempts at change" caucus stumbles in.

    Y'all are acting like Baptists who think they're the only ones going to heaven because everybody else is THAT wrong. Get over yourselves. But by all means, do have yourselves a peachy day.

  • Shiriously Says:

    M1EK - I would imagine that the rich people living in condos and shopping on 2nd are generating quite a bit less in tax revenues right now. I'm not sure that now is a time for "build it and they will come" when other alternatives for directing bail out funds could generate a more immediate impact. -About as beneficial as Arnold trying to borrow from future lottery winnings of California, to up the lotto prizes, to entice more people to play, to generate more future lotto revenues... That didn't pass either.

    Well said Rachel!

  • M1EK Says:

    Shiriously, actually, if you believe the hype of the folks who think Austin was perfect the exact year they moved here, none of those folks down there have jobs anyways, and thus are insulated from the economy collapseageddon.

    Cities with vibrant, healthy downtowns survive downturns a lot better than those with the "roll up the sidewalks at 5" plan we used to do here.

  • Shiriously Says:

    M1EK, actually, I subscribe to the “Austin was perfect the year I left, and every year leading up to it,” mentality. Hell, I still think Austin is perfect –fancy sidewalks or not. That’s not the point. Fancy sidewalks don’t make for vibrant downtowns, they just mask underlying issues. If you were suffering from liver failure, you wouldn’t go to a plastic surgeon and get a nose job, would you?

  • Mean Rachel Says:

    M1EK: "Roll up the sidewalks at 5?" When has that ever been the plan of Austin? I used to spin around in circles at 1:00 AM at La Zona Rosa when I was seven! Austin has had a renowned downtown nightlife scenes that existed long before the Monarch lit up.

  • M1EK Says:

    Mean Rachel, when I moved here in '96, downtown was for office workers during the day, and clubgoers at night; total utilization about a tenth what it is now, and about a hundredth what it should be. Used to walk to shows downtown from my condo near Fresh Plus regularly; but it wasn't a live downtown - it was an office-workers' downtown with a bunch of clubs and a LOT of surface parking lots to walk through/past.