The latest round of expansion in the Rainey Street District of downtown Austin could be the first step towards an improvement some of us have anticipated patiently for the better part of a decade — the paving of the alley that runs between Rainey Street and East Avenue. Discussed as a possible upgrade for at least a decade, paving this alley would allow access to properties in the district without adding congestion to existing streets, especially in the event that further mobility improvements end up closing Rainey Street permanently to non-emergency traffic, a strategy we’ve dreamed of for years that’s recently caught on in earnest, much to our surprise.
A current street view of the entrance to the alley from River Street, which will be covered and paved in this area as part of the River Street Residences tower project. You can see the same perspective in the rendering of the finished tower and its alley entrance below.
The first foothold for an improved Rainey alley could be brought to us by the neighborhood’s River Street Residences tower project, due to its unique orientation straddling the alley at its entrance off River Street. The City of Austin’s Design and Planning Commissions considered the development’s needs last month, namely the right-of-way vacation request allowing public access to the alley through the building, and the proposal for this section gives us a good impression of how we might handle the improvement of the remaining alley.
The section of alley passing through the River Street building will be paved, wide enough for vehicles and pedestrian traffic at 26 feet, and most importantly will bury the many utility lines currently elevated through this area — providing extra space for people, and something we wish was a requirement of essentially every development.
A City of Austin case study from all the way back in 2015 featuring input from multiple local design firms gave us the first good vision of how the simple act of paving an alley could set the stage for transforming this space into a more publicly-accessible urban environment. With dumpster enclosures and other adjustments keeping the back-of-house necessities of the alley intact, features like upgraded lighting and rear access to buildings on both East Avenue and Rainey Street could create essentially a new limb of the entertainment district — and we think many area businesses, particularly the bars on Rainey, would be incentivized to pull this off, with back-alley retail access similar to the famous backstreet izakayas of ultra-urban Japan.
But the River Street project isn’t the only one in the neighborhood with its eyes on the alley. At least two other developments proposed on East Avenue seem to rely upon its paving — the Cambria Hotel at 68-72 East Avenue, which includes a parking garage accessed from the alley; and the East Tower condo project at 84 East Avenue that proposes a backside art galley accessible to pedestrians from both the alley and Rainey Street itself using the passage through the Camden Rainey Street building that now represents the alley’s north end. The Cambria is the only project of the two that truly needs the alley to be paved for functioning access to the building, but we think both plans expect this to get done just the same.
These improvements, like others in the neighborhood, would presumably be funded at least in part by the development fees paid to the city by private developers to offset the mobility challenges presented by increasing growth in the area — though we aren’t sure what’s considered the first priority for the district at the moment. The Planning Commission unanimously improved the River Street tower’s alley vacation request at its meeting late last month, while the Design Commission wanted to see a version of the plan with more community benefits.
Even if the details aren’t completely hammered out, it seems like the best way to make these upgrades happen at all is to propose buildings that depend on them — the River Street project will of course pay for its section of fixed-up alley, providing an attractive gateway to the rest of the passage that should show everyone the potential of paving the whole thing if it hasn’t happened already. In an area infamous for tight spaces and mobility headaches, we have an opportunity to give the Rainey District a whole new street out of thin air — and with the pandemic forcing us to reconsider our relationship with outdoor urban life, there’s never been a better time to get it done.