Have you noticed that Austin’s street grid appears to exist outside the standard bounds of geometry? 12th Street jogs out at an angle once it crosses I-35, 28th Street is parallel to 27th Street — but not to 29th Street — and First Street intersects with Seventh Street (just past its intersection with Fifth Street). The man at fault for this jumble is William Sandusky, whose apparent hatred for orderly transportation has saddled central Austin with not one, but seven grids.
Austin is unique among Texas cities in that it was designed from the beginning as a government town. The second president of the Republic of Texas, Mirabeau Lamar, decided to move the capital from Houston — the city named after his political rival — to an undeveloped area of central Texas he found particularly beautiful. (That’s sort of like if John Adams decided in 1796 to move the capital of the United States to Kentucky because he hated George Washington.) In 1838 the Republic of Texas acquired 7,000 acres, approximately 11 square miles, along the Colorado River for the home of a new capital city — and Edwin Waller, who eventually became Austin’s first mayor, received the unique privilege of laying out our well-known downtown grid.
Waller’s grid was a mile square, and extended from the river to present-day Fifteenth Street (then called North Avenue) and from East Avenue (now I-35) to West Avenue (still West Avenue). It created four public squares, including Republic Square, Brush Square, Wooldridge Square, and the long-lost Hamilton Square, along with a jail, a school, and an arsenal. The centerpiece was the future state capitol grounds, situated on a hill overlooking the Colorado River. For the most part it’s a pretty good grid, and has served Austin well.
Enter William Sandusky. While Waller was charged with defining the city’s core, Sandusky’s responsibility was laying out Austin’s remaining 7,000 acres of government land. These were to be known as the city’s “outlots,” as opposed to the “inlots” of Waller’s grid. A key goal, more key even than orderly city planning, was allowing the government to easily sell those lots to support the fledgling Republic, which was deeply in debt — possibly due at least in part to randomly relocating its capital city. Sandusky only had a few months and not much in the way of resources for this task.
Sandusky conducted physical surveys of the tracts around Austin before devising his plan. Rather than continuing Waller’s grid, he divided the outlots into seven different divisions — and almost every division had its own grid system that did not meaningfully intersect with the adjacent divisions. His scheme extends from West of Lamar Boulevard almost as far east as Springdale Road, and in some places as far north as 45th Street.
The maps seen above and below show the different divisions Sandusky created, and how they line up with the layout of modern Austin. Divisions O, A, and B are considered Central East Austin. Division C is approximately the Cherrywood neighborhood. Division X and Division D divide the University of Texas campus between them. Division X holds the east half of campus and continues up through Hyde Park, while Division D contains the university’s original 40 acres, West Campus, and North University. Division E is north downtown, and Division Z gets everything west of Shoal Creek.
Remember, Sandusky wasn’t putting roads on the ground, merely lines atop vast reaches of forest and prairie delineating parcels of land suitable for sale. But as Austin built out into the outlots, the roads that were eventually built broadly followed the orientation of Sandusky’s divisions. I-35, for instance, starts where the original downtown intersects Division O, then juts out to the right.
MLK Jr. Boulevard is also inside Division B — it doesn’t follow the exact lines Sandusky laid out, but is oriented along Division B’s boundary with Division C — a boundary that unfortunately happens to be about 26 degrees askew from the downtown street grid. I-35 follows the boundary between the downtown grid and Divisions O and B, but north of present day MLK Jr. Boulevard, the highway is approximately level with the eastern edge of Division X.
Division D is particularly messed up. Its streets are at a 15 degree angle from the downtown grid and its blocks are offset approximately half a block — meaning there isn’t a single sensible intersection along MLK Jr. Boulevard. It gets worse. Once you get to 29th Street, Sandusky reverted the grid back to being parallel with downtown — which, of course, created a whole new set of terrible intersections. Division D might actually be the earliest example of the State of Texas deliberately screwing Austin.
Even if he wasn’t drawing roads, Sandusky almost certainly knew the city would develop along the lines he created. So what explains this terrible grid, which flies in the face of contemporary urban planning even to the passive observer? It’s not like these concepts were unknown at the time, either. Sandusky was from Ohio — though not Sandusky, Ohio — a state subject to the 1785 Federal Land Ordinance, which mandated a grid-like system for every settlement in the United States’ newly-acquired territory west of the Appalachians, north of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi River (essentially the modern-day Midwest).
Topography is one potential reason for Sandusky’s shenanigans. There’s a ridgeline along 11th and Rosewood Streets that may explain the grid turn between Division B and Division O. West Campus’ turn could be partially explained by College Hill, where the UT Tower now stands: Sandusky drew a square around that hill and then based the grid on that square rather than the downtown square. But then why deliberately offset that grid a few feet from the downtown grid? And why, about a half mile north of campus, reorient the grid? Topography doesn’t explain everything here.
Unfortunately Sandusky’s motivations appear lost to time — no convenient manifestos titled something like “I Hate the City of Austin and All Who Will Dwell There.” He also died young, in 1847 at the age of 33, long before the results of his plan could become as clear as they are nearly 180 years later. Even more baffling is the fact that Sandusky was also involved in the planning of Galveston, with a grid so precise you could use it for graph paper.
But his reasoning could go back to the original goal of the divisions — selling land. The folks who bought the land — for farms, hunting lodges, and cabins — might not have wanted to feel like they were close to the city. Putting these tracts askew from the main grid would have helped preserve a sense of natural beauty and wilderness — connecting the city, though it sounds crazy now, was only a secondary concern.
So, the next time you’re stuck at the intersection of Lavaca Street and MLK Jr. Boulevard, or perhaps when you see a bus coming at you the wrong way on Guadalupe Street, remember the man whose total lack of long-term vision saddled us with the grim, unworkable transportation system we know and desperately work to fix in the present day. Screw you, Sandusky!