How do you think about Austin? That’s not a trick question — really, when you think of different areas in the city, how do they appear in your brain? Do you imagine individual streets, maybe districts? Or can you pull the camera higher and see things from an aggregate perspective, like you’re playing SimCity?
I don’t know about you, but as someone who does this for a living, I often find myself with tunnel vision. What’s happening in the Rainey Street District? What’s happening in East Austin? What’s happening in 78704? The arbitrary lines of zip codes, neighborhoods, districts — often assisted by very real lines of highways and major roads — present an obstacle, at least in my mind, to stitching the whole thing together and finding patterns in the quilt.
Still, thinking about one of our stories from a couple of weeks ago gave me a more zoomed-out idea than I usually come up with on my own — if you map upcoming developments on the southeast edge of downtown, the RBJ Center’s mixed-use evolution and the city’s planned improvement of the Holly Shores / Edward Rendon Sr Park at Festival Beach represent the two final puzzle pieces in a corridor of development that could create a walkable, mixed-use district from Rainey Street all the way to Lakeshore Boulevard — and possibly beyond.
If that doesn’t make sense, dig into this map of planned developments in the area — I’ve added links at each marker with more information on what’s in store.
Of course, these connections don’t always mean much. You could stick a pin on every development in the urban core, either planned or under construction, and find what looked like meaningful patterns in nearly every corner. But the density and possible connections between what’s going on from Rainey to Lakeshore feels notable.
The fulcrum upon which this entire idea pivots is the installation of a pedestrian bridge between the improved Holly Shores and Lakeshore Boulevard near Oracle’s new campus. The master plan for the park’s redevelopment shows this bridge as a future possibility, but doesn’t dwell on it much — although recent coverage seems to give the notion more credence.
This bridge, as both a symbolic and functional connection between emerging districts on both sides of the lake, would ease the current issues at the Longhorn Dam’s narrow crossing, considerably improving access between what’s planned at the RBJ / Holly Shores region, and what’s already underway at Oracle across the water — not to mention a mysterious little development called Project Catalyst, another piece of the puzzle that would fill the gap between Oracle and projects along East Riverside Drive like South Shore Highline. The question, of course, is when the Holly Shores improvements will appear. The city hasn’t gotten back to me about that one just yet.
I don’t mean to present these specific connections as intentional, or somehow more important than the rest of the city’s growth. I’m not saying we need to create some kind of Greater North and South Shore West-East Rainey/Lakeshore Combined Planning District or anything like that. I’m simply pointing out that by the nature of being where they are, this collection of projects, if properly designed, could represent a walkable mixed-use district linked at the street level all the way from Rainey Street across the water to Lakeshore Boulevard — and perhaps even further, with the possibilities of the Statesman site’s redevelopment and Project Catalyst stretching the line further on each respective end.
This imaginary corridor is possible if the projects listed on the map above are designed with a vague sort of cohesion in mind, not necessarily as part of some explicit plan but rather as a pleasant side effect of design already dedicated to the general principles of walkability, diverse usage and human-level engagement — the philosophy of which we’ve attempted to crystallize through civic planning initiatives like the Great Streets Program, the South Central Waterfront Initiative, the Holly Shores Master Plan, and so on.
In fact, if the city’s standards for design are sufficient, and our various councils and commissions have done their jobs to ensure that new buildings are built with good street-level uses enabled by good sidewalks, and that those sidewalks are connected to good streets and good bike lanes, finding patterns in these developments means nothing — the connections I’m describing might just emerge on their own, simply as a result of good planning. But there’s no harm in pointing out the potential, is there?
We believe that the patterns presented in this section can be implemented best by piecemeal processes, where each project built or each planning decision made is sanctioned by the community according as it does or does not help to form certain large scale patterns.
We do not believe that these large patterns, which give so much structure to a town or of a neighborhood, can be created by centralized authority, or by laws, or by master plans.
We believe instead that they can emerge gradually and organically, almost of their own accord, if every act of building, large or small, takes on the responsibility for gradually shaping its small corner of the world to make these larger patterns appear there.
— Christopher Alexander, “A Pattern Language”
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