If you’re a longtime Towershead, you’ll know we spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the development of the Rainey Street District. It’s downtown Austin’s fastest-growing region in terms of announced or planned projects, but the neighborhood is also geographically isolated due to the boundaries created by Lady Bird Lake and I-35, meaning there are only a few access points and local mobility is challenging even when it’s not Friday night — the narrow streets, a relic of the area’s single-family residential past, don’t help much either.
The small, enclosed nature of Rainey’s environment makes every improvement to its infrastructure extremely noticeable to residents and visitors, and that’s why we were pretty excited last summer to learn that Austin nonprofit the Trail Foundation planned to create a “Trailhead” space at the far south end of the district where the Hike-and-Bike Trail runs along the north shore of Lady Bird Lake. The site’s shown in the embedded map above — it’s a nice chunk of parkland at the corner of Cummings Street and East Avenue, just south of the 44 East Avenue condo tower site. (Its developers Intracorp are picking up some of the cost of the project.)
This gateway to the Trail is an important entry point where TTF envisions improving the ecological function, providing more recreation opportunities, and increasing amenities for the neighborhood and Trail users.
— The Trail Foundation
The project would improve access to the trail itself, but what’s nice about the size of the parkland here is that a trailhead plan can create much more than an entrance — there’s already an incredibly well-designed public restroom here (don’t laugh, it rules) by local architects Miró Rivera, but aside from some nice existing sidewalks there’s not much going on at this corner. The Trail Foundation hopes to fix that, and after some community engagement surveys we’ve settled on a preliminary design:
Judging by the map above, there’s a significant ecological component to this project in the form of native plantings and a restoration of the lake’s edge, but we’re also interested in the human function. There’s new crosswalks, identified as a priority in recent mobility studies of the area, along with a big open lawn, natural materials-inclined playground space, and a shaded picnic (or “lounge”) area.
These features are roughly what we expected going by the design options previously presented by the Trail Foundation as part of its community engagement process throughout last year, but it’s still nice to see these spaces rendered in loving detail by the landscape architects at local firm dwg.
We’re also happy to see an “Overlook” and additional stepped space directly on the edge of the lake seemingly improving access for kayaks, paddleboards, and whatever else people are using to tootle around on the water — one of the ironies we frequently mention regarding downtown Austin’s urban design is that for a city so centered on the natural environment of Lady Bird Lake and its surrounding trails, there are surprisingly few places where it’s easy to actually access that water, especially for wheelchair users. That’s a huge benefit of the Trail Foundation’s Drake Bridge Commons plan, and it appears the Rainey Trailhead is more of the same.
So, here’s the thing — even though we haven’t looked at it before, the proposed design above actually dates back to December 2019, and a lot has happened between then and now to trip up its progress. The Trail Foundation was actually supposed to begin the $1.7 million fundraising campaign for the project right around when the pandemic shut everything down, so now it’s on pause:
Community engagement and the first round of design has been done on the Rainey Street Project, and TTF was preparing to launch a fundraising campaign for the $1.7 million total project cost when the stay-at-home orders took effect.
This gateway to the Trail is an important entry point where TTF envisions improving the ecological function, providing more recreation opportunities, and increasing amenities for the neighborhood and Trail users. A schematic design has been developed; the next phase of the project is raising the additional private funds for more detailed design work and construction.
— The Trail Foundation
That sounds like a bit of a downer after all the nice pictures we just looked at, but on the bright side $1.7 million is honestly trivial compared to some of the high-minded stuff proposed around here. Parks and other public spaces face all-new challenges in the previously unfamiliar context of a pandemic, and it’s hard to tell exactly what sort of design evolutions could arise to address them in the future, but for now we’re just happy to see the Rainey Street Trailhead project’s still alive.