Downtown Austin’s getting two, maybe three skybridges in the near future, and many of my fellow urbanists aren’t too happy about it.
The skybridges contemplated would connect hotels to the City of Austin Convention Center, creating a sort of hermetically sealed convention district that never meaningfully interacts with the street. These elevated pathways between buildings are decried by many modern urban planners and placemakers, who believe they harm the character of walkable streetscapes by isolating pedestrians from the ground.
These wouldn’t be the first skybridges in the city. The bridge between Lavaca Plaza and its parking garage comes to mind. Still, the convention center-hotel bridges we’re looking at will be a bit more prominent.
Fairmont – Convention Center Bridge
The Fairmont Hotel, currently in the final stages of construction, has conventions on the brain. Its proxemity to the center means we’ll soon see a $6 million skybridge connecting the buildings over Red River Street. New York-based architects Thomas Phifer and Partners designed the bridge with help from the Waller Creek Conservancy, which is working to protect and improve the stretch of Waller Creek directly below the bridge.
Hilton Austin – Convention Center Bridge
Another skybridge is planned between the Hilton Austin hotel and the convention center. Designed by Gensler, the bridge would pass over East Fourth street and the downtown MetroRail station. It seems to offset the typical complaints about bridges sealing away pedestrians by including some open-air elements, along with a viewing platform and small event area.
Marriott/Convention Center Expansion Bridges
When the city announced its long-range master plan for the expansion of the downtown convention center in 2015, it included a hotel component on the block at the corner of Cesar Chavez and Trinity Streets. Now that we’ve heard about plans for the Marriott on this site, it appears at least the first stage of this concept is moving forward. If 2015 renderings for a potential expansion are still reliable, the expanded convention center building connected to the future Marriott will include two skybridge connections over Trinity Street to the existing convention center. Yep, the convention center wants to reach around and build a skybridge to itself.
I get why many urbanists hate skybridges, but I’m struggling to find good reason to get worked up about these in particular. The convention center complex isn’t hosting any neighborhood retail along its perimeter. The opportunity costs for the streetscape seem low.
For as much as I hate the horizontal expansion of the convention center, honestly, I like the idea of giving conventioneers their own little silo of Disneyland™. Plus, it’s hot out there. Austin’s frequent 100 degree days could literally kill a conventioneer from Soviet Canada.
Anyway, the idea that these bridges would be the sole obstacle preventing convention-goers from really exploring Austin seems a little ridiculous.
Let conventioneers have their skybridges. The rest of Austin will be on the outside.