In 1967, architect David Graeber bought a former saloon building dating back to 1882 on Sixth Street and painstakingly converted the crumbling structure into his own personal residence, which still stands to this day as one of downtown Austin’s lesser-known architectural marvels at 410 East Sixth Street.
Graeber lived on Sixth for more than 30 years, and was decades ahead of the curve in predicting a growing demand for downtown living in Austin — judging by local news coverage at the time, his strong desire for an urban residence in the heart of the city was considered a charming eccentricity at best. But Graeber never gave up on Sixth Street, and in the 1970s people started to follow his lead. As president of the Sixth Street Conservation Association, he spent much of his free time pushing the city for improvement and preservation efforts in the district, including listing the street on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and proposing a slightly goofy and obviously unrealized 1987 plan for a 100-foot metal star rising over the intersection of Sixth and Red River Streets as a new landmark and tourist attraction.
Underpinning all of Graeber’s advocacy was the simple idea of Sixth Street as a neighborhood, a place where people lived and worked and shopped, a conception of the street more in line with its earlier history as a eclectic district of largely immigrant-owned businesses. That vision seemingly peaked for the last time in the late 1970s, with the historic stretch of East Sixth appearing on the cusp of a permanent revival — at the time, the street had a population of artists and oddballs alongside art galleries, restaurants, shops, and theaters balancing out the bars and clubs that now dominate the neighborhood with predictable results.
“The one thing that sort of distresses me is the number of people interested in restoring the buildings for the purposes of night clubs,” said Councilperson Dr. Emma Lou Linn, a Sixth Street townhouse resident. “One of the things essential for Sixth Street,” Linn said, “is to have people living there, that makes it a real neighborhood.”
— Austin American-Statesman, 1976
The disinvestment in Sixth Street has recently achieved a steady state of violence jarring nearly everyone within range of Austin’s levers of power into supporting radical action toward transformation, remarkable consensus in a town famously resistant to even mild change. Despite a touch of anxiety over handing a private entity the keys to its future, the plan by major new landowner Stream Realty Partners to diversify the street with hotel, residential, retail, office, and arts uses beyond the current lineup of shot bars seems like the way forward — but a recent press push by the developer appears to imply that the anxieties of the current market could scale those plans back, with Stream reportedly focusing at the moment on restoring the neglected buildings among the firm’s more than 30 property holdings on the street and securing new restaurant and bar tenants rather than any new construction for now.
That’s still a very wide step in the right direction, but simply turning Sixth Street into a more upscale bar district would be yet another missed opportunity at this moment of demand for radical change, particularly when it seems like the city and the public would accept almost anything new. The mountain Austin must climb is the pursuit of additional housing on Sixth Street, bringing a larger population of stakeholders into this historic downtown area and investing in the idea of the street as a neighborhood. It’s not an easy task, just like it wasn’t for Graeber in 1967 — but until someone pulls it off at scale, we’re confident Sixth Street won’t live up to its full potential.
We’re hoping Stream sticks it out and builds new homes here, but until then we’re extremely invested in the future of the Grant Plaza offices at 611 East Sixth Street, currently in the planning stages of redevelopment by New York-based real estate firm Empire Square Group into a 259-unit residential building with retail facing the street. It’s the first residential building proposed here in decades, and by all accounts the development is still moving through the permitting process with the city despite the recent local slowdown in construction. Although Stream’s larger plans for the district are getting more attention at the moment, we think the outcome of the Grant Plaza project is really the crystal ball for the future of Sixth Street. Can you imagine a possible future where you would like to live there?