This month, the City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department released its draft master plan for improvements to Brush Square, one of the three remaining historic public squares laid out in the original plan for downtown Austin.
We’ve previously taken a look at the various design concepts PARD’s presented during the master plan’s public engagement process this year, but now, we’ve got a better picture of what’s actually on the table for this neglected downtown public space. (That, and this new draft plan includes some pretty great renderings of the renovated square, which I know are a lot better than maps when it comes to making people actually pay attention.)
The monkey on Brush Square’s back is Austin Central Fire Station 1, operating out of the historic Streamline Moderne structure located at the block’s northwestern corner. Though the building dates back to 1938 and houses the Austin Fire Museum, it’s actually still the most active fire station in the downtown area, and until the Austin Fire Department finds a new location for a downtown station, anything happening at Brush Square has to defer to its operations — which includes the continued existence of a parking lot behind the building. The master plan also has to accommodate (and compliment!) the other museums on site.
The fire department, by all accounts, doesn’t particularly enjoy using this antiquated facility — in fact, I’ve heard they think it’s kind of a giant pain in the ass — so it’s not like there’s going to be some kind of fight over relocating them elsewhere downtown. It’s just going to take some leadership at the city level to get a new station built, something I hope gets rolling sooner rather than later. You’ll see why in a second.
Keeping the situation with the fire department in mind, the master plan splits its design vision for Brush Square into two phases — Phase I, which includes modifications that don’t interfere with the station and its necessary parking lot; and Phase II, which can begin as soon as the station is relocated:
Phase II would remove the non-historic annex structure currently on the east side of the station, and convert the original 1938 structure into a downtown visitor’s center and cafe, with indoor/outdoor seating and public restrooms — usages we feel are absolutely the best and brightest for this underappreciated historic building. As you can see from the map above, it also converts the existing parking lot into additional “Great Lawn” space, including a bandshell structure.
If you recall the three design options shown off during the public engagement process, you’ll note that the plan above appears to integrate features from all three — the maximized lawn space and interactive water feature of the “Water Walk” design, the layout at the square’s northern entrance from the “Three Rooms” design, and the presence of a stage — or bandshell, in this case– oriented in a similar configuration as the “Four Lawns” design.
The plan’s also designed with a meaningful connection on its south end to the public plaza replacing the temporary MetroRail station north of the Austin Convention Center on East Fourth Street, which will take shape at the same time as Capital Metro’s new Downtown Station. We’ve already covered this project in detail, but the new master plan includes a very snazzy rendering of the new station I hadn’t seen before:
Since the most noticeable improvements to Brush Square take place in Phase II, that’s understandably what PARD decided to focus on in its renderings — let’s face it, with the parking lot and fully-operational station building still on the square, there’s only so much you can do with this small space.
Still, the plans for Phase I are nothing to sneeze at. Brendan Wittstruck, urban designer at Asakura Robinson and friend of this site, tells me the first round of improvements will provide increased access and better sightlines through the square, and the “eyes on the street” enabled by this design will improve the area’s social environment — the draft plan for the square indicates that it sees an above-average rate of non-violent criminal activity, which the document gently dubs “illicit behavior.”
Though Phase I doesn’t have an established timeline or even a kickoff date at this point, the release of the draft plan is still a step in the right direction for those of us interested in turning Brush Square around. For the time being, you’ve got until December 2 to take the city’s survey and provide your thoughts on the first draft of the master plan — yeah, you won’t win a coloring book this time around, but they’d still really like to hear from you!