The last time we caught up with the Drake Bridge Commons — a project by Austin’s Trail Foundation imagining a new downtown public space beneath the Drake Bridge carrying First Street across Lady Bird Lake — we had two design options to choose between as part of the community engagement stage of the plan. Now, based on that input, the foundation’s settled on one. You wanna see it?
Based on the first round of engagement, the “Drake Dock” design is the way we’re going, and thankfully that was our favorite between the two. The labeled site plan below gives us a breakdown of the project’s various elements, which are numerous:
The design’s twin docks, one “dry” and one “wet,” represent a step in the right direction for downtown placemaking — as we’ve complained before, despite the tremendous importance of the lake in Austin’s cultural environment, there actually aren’t very many public spaces providing direct or wheelchair-friendly access to the water.
These new dock structures, along with the plans we’re still waiting on at the Seaholm Waterfront, would largely address that deficiency, at least on the lake’s north shore. We’re not the only ones who noticed — Rios Clementi Hale Studios, the firm behind the project’s design, mentions in these presentation documents that a big priority for the Commons was its ability to reconnect the city with its waterfront.
Despite its numerous improvements, the dry dock on the west end of the Commons area is probably its most immediately striking feature. The four tall piles anchoring the floating dock, which also incorporate lighting elements and look sort of like Charlie Brown’s shirt, allow the entire structure to move with the level of the lake — which, for the record, doesn’t change much, but can rise and fall by a few feet depending on how much water’s flowing into it from its various tributaries.
The dock creates a pretty large space on the water, and combined with the lighting included on the anchor piles it enables some interesting programming possibilities, including its use as a stage for paddle-up events — the diagram below shows its utility for regular public use, small events, big events, and so forth:
Compared to the dry dock, things quiet down a bit on the east side of the Commons, where the “wet” dock takes a more ecologically-minded approach by enabling the growth of a floating wetland habitat.
The entrances to the Commons on either side are described as a “sanctuary” space, providing a “green gateway” to the docks and space underneath the bridge emphasizing shade and ample native plants, along with educational signage.
This approach is especially obvious on the east end of the area, where the connection between the river and the rest of downtown receives special care as a “green buffer.” Connected with the existing pedestrian ramp on the eastern side of the Drake Bridge, this section of trail includes night lighting and ample natural landscaping:
As a hub connecting all the features described above, the actual space beneath the Drake Bridge receives perhaps the most attention of all in this design. Remember, the whole reason this plan was proposed in the first place was the improvement of the section of Hike-and-Bike Trail running beneath the bridge, which was poorly lit and otherwise undeveloped, so it’s a welcome but fairly obvious choice by the Trail Foundation to expand the width of the trail in this area to 20 feet.
In this area, you’ll find seating, swings — which are hard to see in the rendering above but appear to be located under the bridge near the dry dock — and a bouldering wall, an unexpected but very intriguing feature that sounds like a liability nightmare considering all the waivers they make you sign to climb at Austin Bouldering Project.
Safety and other logistics aside, we’re really glad the Foundation’s considering something like a climbing wall, because it represents a dedication to creating a common space people actually like instead of just taking an easier path by throwing down a big piece of ugly public art or something else equally uninspiring. These sorts of planning processes are often so dominated by consultants and bottom lines and other design by committee that any indication of genuine vision is considerably watered down by the time the final product enters the world.
Good public spaces need a tiny bit of danger, or at least risk, to make them interesting — think about beers in Republic Square, or the slides and climbing structures of the Alliance Children’s Garden. In other words, I’m looking forward to slightly injuring myself at the Drake Bridge Commons bouldering wall, and considering the amount of padding they’ll have to install beneath that wall to make any lawyer on the planet sign off on it, I’ll probably hobble away with only a minor sprain anyway.
Still, despite narrowing down the Commons’ design, nothing’s set in stone just yet. The Trail Foundation tells me it’s wrapping up the “visioning” phase of the project, and the next step is developing cost estimates and a “pitch package” to present to its donors in order to secure funding. Once a percentage of those funds are secured, the Foundation can start locking down the final design — but for now, unless you’re a big-money donor, just fill out the Foundation’s new survey for feedback on the design seen here and keep your fingers crossed for some excellent docks downtown.
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