The annual PARK(ing) Day event creates public space in downtown Austin by converting, for a day, many of Congress Avenue’s street parking spaces into temporary parklets. It’s a fun time, but perhaps more importantly, the event serves as a reminder of how much space we’ve sacrificed to parking in the public realm of our most famous street — space that, in many cases, can be reclaimed without significantly reducing downtown’s overall parking stock.
But as the so-called Main Street of Texas works to upgrade its image after years — or decades, to be more precise — of planned improvements, you might be surprised to learn there’s already an option for the creation of additional public space downtown, via a city program that’s quietly produced six outdoor “pocket patios” atop street parking spaces with at least four more in the planning stages. Here’s an in-depth map of current patios built under the program, along with a few upcoming projects, all located along Congress Avenue:
Though it’s received little fanfare thus far, the street patio program has the potential to gently tip the balance of downtown Austin’s public space away from cars and towards people in a way that makes plenty of sense on a street with some of the city’s heaviest pedestrian presence.
As the designer for five of Congress Avenue’s existing pocket patios, and with many more planned for the near future, local landscape architecture firm dwg. has found itself at the program’s front lines, with its president and founder Daniel Woodroffe serving as chief evangelist. In fact, dwg.’s office overlooks one of the firm’s latest patio projects, located in front of Caffe Aragona at 914 Congress Avenue — and Woodroffe tells me all you need to do to understand the patio’s power to improve the public realm is look out the window.
Pocket parks, pop-up-patios — whatever quirky name they are called — are a national phenomenon of tactical urbanism. They are designed to challenge archaic engineering standards of “fat roads” that have resulted in anti-pedestrian environments.
— Daniel Woodroffe
I caught up with Woodroffe to increase my understanding of the program’s history and present condition, and came away a true believer in the patio’s power to shape the street — but you can figure that out yourself just by strolling down Congress Avenue today, where the patios are already an accepted part of the pedestrian environment.
In 2010, the Downtown Austin Alliance released a strategic report for the future of Congress Avenue which described “overwhelming” public support for the prioritization of foot traffic as part of the thoroughfare’s social landscape. In 2012, Council Member Chris Riley partnered with the DAA to propose a pocket patio, designed by dwg., for Royal Blue Grocery at 609 Congress Avenue. As the first of its kind, the patio was intended to serve as the opening phase of a pilot project meant to solicit feedback from the public and downtown Austin stakeholders, in order to better define the scope of future patio projects built by business owners atop the street parking spaces in front of their properties.
Some people have this very stodgy kind of attitude about downtown — in order for everything to work, you’ve got to move cars in and out as fast as possible and you’ve got to have parking outside your business. Personally, I think that’s a failed mentality.
— Daniel Woodroffe
According to Woodroffe, it didn’t take long to demonstrate the potential.
“At Royal Blue, you’d have two people feeding the meter to park there all day, paying seven or eight dollars,” he says. “Today, rather than two people, you have between 200 and 400 people using that space, which generates business not only for Royal Blue but for most of the stores along that street. The more this can occur, the healthier it is for the entire block — it’s not just a benefit to the business owner with the patio.”
By 2014, the city converted the original resolution creating the pocket patio pilot study into a full-fledged ordinance. Though this was a step in the right direction, Woodroffe says the process is not yet fully refined.
“The ordinance is very general, very broad-brushed, and there are still a lot of complications with building these temporary installations in the right of way — it’s a challenge getting all the city’s departments to have a degree of trust and confidence that these things are truly temporary in nature, and can be removed quickly if there was ever a need to,” he says. “The pocket patio is meant to have a 30-day city review process, but on the Caffe Aragona patio, it took a year — which I don’t think is a criticism of the process, but rather an indicator that everyone at the city is incredibly busy, and there isn’t a dedicated staff member or department to deal with them.”
In 2016, the City of Austin released its first draft of a Street Patio Handbook outlining the program’s design guidelines and application process for downtown property owners. Woodroffe describes this as another necessary step towards streamlining the construction of additional patios, but still identifies numerous shortcomings with the current code — one of which is its ambiguity regarding time limits for the installation of patios under the program.
At the moment, the life span of a patio is technically limited by the program to five years, but since the cost of building one is fairly significant, Woodroffe thinks it makes far more sense to allow an applicant to renew its license indefinitely as long as the space is kept in good condition and the owner maintains all the necessary permits.
The current code’s ambiguities have complicated dwg.’s proposal for the construction of what would be Congress Avenue’s largest pocket patios yet at the Scarbrough Building, with outdoor spaces planned facing both Congress Avenue and Sixth Street. City staff, including the Historic Landmark Commission, have raised concerns about the appropriateness of materials and permanence of various elements of the Scarbrough’s patio, especially regarding its “Weird” sculpture — concerns that could be addressed, in Woodroffe’s opinion, by a less ambiguous code. (For what it’s worth, he says the sculpture’s off the table for the time being.)
After overseeing the design of so many patios on Congress Avenue alone, dwg. has gathered a considerable amount of data and experience Woodroffe feels is vital to the future success of the program. To that end, his firm is in the process of writing a pocket patio white paper or “bible” that builds upon the city’s own handbook — what Woodroffe calls a “living document” demonstrating the utility of the program for both local business owners and the public based on observations from existing patios.
Woodroffe says the intent of the white paper is to increase the support of pocket patios from the city both at a funding and policy level — and perhaps, if they’re lucky, demonstrate the need for full-time city staff that could oversee the program with a higher degree of familiarity.
“[Full-time staff and funding] would be a good thing, rather than not having the resources to process and manage an application through all of the city departments — which is what results in it taking a year to get approval,” he says.
“Without appropriate resources, the patio permitting should not be presented as an expedited process, when it often becomes an uphill struggle where only the most stubborn clients with staying power and financial resources can accomplish a project. That’s not innovative, that’s not pushing Austin as a dynamic city that embraces change — that’s quite the opposite.”