There’s a real laundry list of development currently taking place in downtown Austin’s so-called “Innovation District” east of the Capitol. You’ve got Central Health’s massive reimagining of the former Brackenridge Hospital site, with the “Innovation Tower” itself now up for lease at the center of the action overlooking the new Waterloo Park, and right across the intersection of East 12th and Red River Streets the Symphony Square office and residential tower project is also sailing along. A bit further north along Red River we’ve just seen the impressive grand opening of the Moody Center, which through its sheer existence implies the coming demolition and redevelopment of the Frank Erwin Center — and that’s just the stuff that’s already broken ground, with a number of other properties in the district poised for growth in the years to come.
Part of the stretch of “Old Red River” to be converted to a pedestrian plaza as part of the street’s realignment through the Central Health development.
But right in the middle of all this serious business, we’ve often overlooked one of the subtle improvements planned for this region’s redevelopment, long discussed by the city and other area stakeholders in purposefully vague terms but never offered the spotlight compared with new towers and arenas and all that other innovation stuff — the realignment of Red River Street through the area, specifically what we’ll do with the old bit of Red River between East 12th and 15th Streets once the street passes through the Central Health project instead of following the curve of Waterloo Park.
By returning the street to its original route before 1970s urban renewal screwed up the grid, we’re creating three blocks of city right-of-way no longer needed for cars, which just happens to follow the eastern edge of Waterloo Park and the western edge of the redeveloping Central Health site — a perfect pedestrian centerpiece for the emerging district. As outlined in presentations by the Austin Transportation Department last month to the Urban Transportation Commission and Pedestrian Advisory Council, the city plans to work with area stakeholders including Central Health and Waterloo Greenway to redesign this three-block stretch, now known as Old Red River Street, into a “plaza/pedestrian-oriented amenity.”
The department expects to launch a public input process later this summer, seeking design feedback on how to best transition this old bit of street into a permanent pedestrian plaza — but until then, ATD expects to test the concept in the near future with a short-term first phase that pedestrianizes the three-block area using collapsable temporary blockades, creating an “accessible walkable and shared mobility public plaza.” Although pedestrianizing three blocks isn’t going to reinvent the city all on its own, it’s not every day we’re given the opportunity to reimagine such a large central street for people over cars, particularly in the heart of a district set to become a major downtown attraction — so once the people in charge start collecting input on the project, you’d better believe we’ll make sure you’re paying attention.