The plan by the City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department to renovate downtown’s Brush Square into a more accessible public outdoor space has finally kicked off its first phase, with the site currently fenced off and visible construction underway since late last month. That’s a big ol’ sigh of relief you’re hearing from us — to be fair, we’ve been waiting on this one since 2018 or thereabouts.
As one of the city’s three remaining public squares originally laid out by Edwin Waller in Austin’s 1839 plan, Brush Square’s historical bona fides are undeniable — but at the moment, the site feels a bit like downtown’s junk drawer, containing an architecturally significant New Deal-era fire station that’s still running as the Austin Fire Department’s main downtown hub, two relocated historic homes containing the O. Henry Museum and the Joseph and Susanna Dickinson Hannig Museum, and just a bit of lightly-trafficked open space out back. Everything here is important, but there’s no real unifying vision for the site as a public amenity — enter the plan for the square’s renovation by PARD alongside urban design firm Asakura Robinson, which first began soliciting public input all the way back in the dark ages of 2018.
The City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department launched a concept planning effort for Brush Square located in downtown Austin. Brush Square is one of three remaining historic public squares from the 1839 Waller Plan for the City of Austin and is located in the southeast quadrant of downtown. Funding for the concept planning effort was provided by the 2012 General Obligation Bonds for Downtown Squares.
The 2019 plan envisions Brush Square as a unique park for downtown Austin that is distinct yet complementary to other downtown squares and public spaces. Existing heritage trees will be protected and an array of native or adapted plantings will be added to provide visual delight and habitat. Shaded, small gathering spaces will be abundant as places of respite for nearby residents, workers, transit users, and event attendees. The square will also comfortably support larger events, such as the annual O. Henry Pun-Off.
The resulting plan for creating a more convincing park at the site scored approval from City Council in 2019, with funding secured through the city’s Hotel Occupancy Tax. Three long and strange years later, what’s currently under construction at Brush Square represents Phase I of the overall vision plan — later phases will require a few major changes, most critically the anticipated relocation of the fire station at the site to a more modern headquarters elsewhere downtown, allowing the square to expand into space currently used as the station’s surface parking lot. (Plans for a new downtown fire station currently seem to be stuck in the shoulder-shrugging stage at the city, so we should probably get used to the first phase stuff for a while.)
The good news is that there’s a big list of improvements baked into Phase I alone. Once work wraps up here around winter 2023, Brush Square will add landscaping and walkways providing better circulation and open sightlines through the area, a large event lawn near the center of the site, and shaded decking around the square’s preserved heritage trees — that’s alongside smaller bonuses like additional lighting, seating, native plantings, and rain gardens to handle stormwater.
Like the similar upgrade of Republic Square a few years ago, Brush Square’s coming transformation is especially compelling due to what’s happening around it — along with the existing hotel and residences at the Hilton directly to the east, new towers are on the way at other adjacent sites including the Avenue Lofts, Fifth and Trinity, Railyard Condos, and 5RR projects. The square’s proximity to the downtown MetroRail station and the Fourth Street Promenade planned by Project Connect will also make Brush Square a major landmark along downtown’s future pedestrian axis, with Republic Square serving a similar role at the other end. It’s enough to make your head spin, so just make sure you swing by around the end of 2023.