Austin’s main street might finally get some attention in 2017.
Improvements for Congress Avenue have been in the pipeline since the passing of a city bond package in 2012, but we’re only recently seeing some movement on the issue. The Congress Avenue Urban Design Initiative, which is currently conducting surveys for community outreach, should eventually bring some positive change to the avenue, which needs all the help it can get — and I’m not the only one who thinks so.
— Ed Ireson (@EdIreson) April 23, 2017
The assortment of vacant buildings and parking spaces along Congress Avenue really doesn’t do our city any favors, considering it’s supposedly the crown jewel of main streets for hundreds of miles around, or something like that. It feels like someone’s been talking about updating Congress Avenue’s streetscape for the entire time I’ve been alive, and aside from some new trees and parking meters I’m unclear precisely on the specifics.
To get a better idea, I dug through more than a century of archived issues of the Austin American-Statesman to see what folks have been saying about Congress since the beginning.
Congress Avenue has existed since Austin’s founding in 1839, but the road wasn’t actually paved until 1905. Funding for the paving project was secured at least in part by charging a fee to every property owner on the street to pave the section of road in front of their property.
And it appears the paving arrived not a moment too soon — a 1903 article complains of poor street crossings along the unpaved Congress Avenue. The article goes on to mention “sprinkling cars” that traveled down the dirt road daily, wetting the surface to prevent the formation of dust.
By 1904, before the avenue was even paved, debate raged in city council over improvements to the street, namely the widening of sidewalks to eight feet on each side. Opponents of the expansion argued that such improvements would make the thoroughfare hostile to wagon and automobile traffic.
Between 1875 and 1940, Congress Avenue also included streetcar tracks, with cars powered — believe it or not — by mule, until the introduction of electric streetcars in 1891. As part of the paving initiative started in 1905, the city explored the possibility of creating miniature parks along the streetcar tracks and in the spaces between them, green spaces measuring only eleven feet wide. It doesn’t appear that this proposal ever made it past the planning stages, but it’s oddly similar to the sort of new urbanist street improvements and pocket parks we’re familiar with in the present day.
By 1910, sidewalks were in place along both sides of Congress, with business owners on the street again on the hook for their construction.
In 1915, Mayor Wooldridge announced his intent to improve the regulation of traffic along Congress Avenue by using police officers to direct traffic via “stop” and “go” flags. This system, he said, would be modeled after similar practices already used to great effect in Detroit.
But all was not well for the regulation of traffic on Congress — by 1920, local merchants along the street complained to the city that parking laws were not being enforced by police, leading to cars being frequently parked directly in front of fire hydrants.
By the mid-1920s, lighted traffic signals existed on the street. A 1927 article described a new system of lights installed with much more efficient timing, so much so that they reduced travel times down the avenue by a full minute.
Streetlights have existed along Congress Avenue in some form since the mid-1800s, first lit via gas, then electricity in the form of carbon arc lamps.
In 1931, city utilities administrator Walter E. Seaholm announced a new system of electric lights that would line each side of the street, rendering obsolete the large iron light poles located in the center of the avenue.
In 1940, the city’s streetcars were finally phased out for good and replaced with buses — supposedly greatly improving the flow of traffic along Congress. As the city discussed its options for removing the tracks from the avenue, the possibility of creating an island in the center of the street as part of a beautification program was proposed. Clearly, that didn’t happen.
Parking problems persisted along Congress for most of its modern life — in 1952, business owners met with the city council to discuss changes to the parking meters along the street, which at the time granted an hour of parking for five cents. The council’s citizen’s advisory committee proposed a plan to reduce the maximum allowed parking time to 30 minutes for the same price of a nickel. It certainly makes our maximum parking times seem generous.
Parking scarcity was apparently so bad that in the same year, a developer proposed a bolder plan: Build a 60-foot elevated street directly above Congress Avenue, to be used solely for parking. Try as I might, this is the only imagery I can find of the proposal, so squint your eyes and use your imagination:
Surprisingly, the plan stuck around. In 1960, local architect Edward Maurer outlined a similar design, but with even loftier goals — to convert the entirety of Congress’ north side, from the Capitol to the shores of the lake, to a car-free pedestrian mall. Grass and trees would be planted on the former site of the street, and air-conditioned walkways built on either side would provide access to businesses along the avenue.
The elevated streets for parking first proposed in 1952 would still be built, but grander, with large aerial garages planned for side streets adjacent to Congress. By 1961, Maurer appeared to hedge his bets on his original vision for the future of Congress Avenue, and instead came out in favor of planting more trees on the street. What a difference a year makes!
In 1965, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin criticized Congress after taking a walk down the street and finding a “sea of concrete” that somehow still lacked sidewalks. The street, Halprin concluded, was not designed for walking.
By 1975, a large plan for the revitalization of Congress Avenue was granted initial funding by the city, including extended sidewalks, additional ramps for handicapped access, and the planting of additional trees.
But after numerous delays and a controversy over high costs, including the construction of bus stops along the avenue that reportedly cost as much as three city buses, the project was officially delayed in 1977. Some of those proposed improvements eventually filtered through, of course. More trees were planted through the 1980s, for example, but very little has changed on Congress since then beyond the additional greenery.
The Downtown Austin Alliance has been working on getting some momentum on a renewal project for more than a decade at this point, so it’ll be interesting to see what the city’s latest initiative accomplishes — go fill out their survey, would you?
Newspaper clippings courtesy of the Austin Public Library / Austin American-Statesman.