The bridge carrying First Street across Lady Bird Lake has held the official title of the “Drake Bridge” for 63 years of its 65-year existence — in other words, not exactly breaking news. Still, I’d bet my life that a vast majority of Austinites have no idea this is the case, perhaps even many of the people who were actually alive during the mayoral term of William Sherman Drake, Jr., who held office here at the time of the bridge’s completion in 1954.
This uphill battle of public awareness is currently a major concern for the folks at the Trail Foundation, the organization tasked with the stewardship of Austin’s much-loved Hike and Bike Trail. The foundation, which recently celebrated its 15th anniversary, is preparing to kick off the first project under the umbrella of its Corgan Canopy Fund initiative — the Drake Bridge Commons, an effort to revitalize the area of the trail beneath the bridge on the north shore of the lake.
“Most Austinites know Drake Bridge as the 1st Street Bridge, and there is little sense of the Trail at Drake Bridge as a place or destination.”
— The Trail Foundation
At present, this space is unlit, undeveloped, and relatively forgettable — a condition that, for what it’s worth, reflects the bridge’s own current anonymity in terms of low public awareness regarding its name or historic context.
With the help of Los Angeles-based design firm Rios Clementi Hale Studios, which established an Austin office earlier this year, the foundation recently unveiled two potential design concepts for improving the area underneath and around the bridge, creating a more memorable public space for downtown by literally bringing this part of the trail out of the shadows.
At a public engagement event held at the space last weekend, representatives of the foundation and RCH Studios presented their visions in an unorthodox way. Sure, they had renderings of the concepts on big boards like we’re used to, but they also hired a trio of improv actors to portray three historic Austinites — the aforementioned Mayor William Drake, Emma Long, and Walter Seaholm — all of whom played roles in local politics during the time of the bridge’s construction.
It’s kinda like that time Jim hired a Ben Franklin impersonator to troll Dwight, but it’s probably a better way to get people involved than making them stare at a bunch of boards. Anyway, here’s a closer look at the two design options for the Drake Bridge Commons, as presented last weekend:
Option One – “Drake Dock”
The centerpiece of this design, as implied by the name, is a set of dock structures that extend diagonally into the lake on both sides from underneath the bridge. The western “dry” dock is designed for lake access, offering city views and easy kayak launches, while the eastern “wet” dock is partially submerged and enables a wetland environment with aquatic plants and more limited access via stepping stones.
The materials of the dock extend to the area underneath the bridge itself, which the plan describes as a “sanctuary,” providing a lot of seating and climbable surfaces, along with space for potential events or other activation. The slide below also gives us a better view of the “wet” dock area:
For safety purposes as well as fun, the space under the bridge will include dramatic lighting, as seen in the night shot provided below — along with an actual climbing wall, which will probably appeal to both kids and inner kids:
Option Two – “Drake Rock”
The “Drake Rock” design, focused on ecology and downtown access, feels more restrained than the dock option — though its improvements are equally expansive.
This plan would create a series of terraces on the eastern side of the bridge connecting the area to downtown, with a focus on landscaping including climbable rocks and other natural features. Lighting and water elements — as in, stuff kids can play with — are also listed as priorities for this configuration.
The space underneath the Drake Bridge itself also feels slightly more restrained than the other configuration, with an amphitheater space and seating permitting event programming, plus lighting, a boat launch, and a possible concessions area.
While both designs would obviously be huge improvements for the area, we’re not afraid to wear our hearts on our sleeve regarding our favorite between the two — it’s absolutely Drake Dock. The dock configuration is a truly inspired piece of design that meaningfully connects its visitors to the physical environment of Lady Bird Lake, and its features remind us of our favorite unused proposals from back in 2013 for the adaptive reuse of the Seaholm Intake.
Bottom line, either proposal will make the Drake Bridge a destination in its own right, but for us, the winner is clear. Anyway, you’ve got until May 13 to make us proud by taking the Trail Foundation’s survey on your preferred design for this space — either by clicking this link or filling out the form below: