The Planning Commission heard a presentation Tuesday on the Palm District Plan, an initiative that aims to guide growth and preserve cultural heritage in a rapidly changing part of downtown.
“The overarching vision of the district,” Stevie Greathouse with the Housing and Planning Department said, “is that it become a vibrant, historic hub of downtown where the past is honored, culture is celebrated, and the future is shaped.”
The historically Mexican American district includes Rainey Street and the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, Waterloo Greenway, the Red River Cultural District, and the Austin Convention Center.
Many changes are in store for the area, including Project Connect light rail stations, a long-planned expansion of the convention center through a public-private partnership, the build-out of Waterloo Greenway along Waller Creek, the potential redevelopment of the Palm School and Austin Police Department headquarters, a push to redevelop large portions of Sixth Street, and the reconstruction and cap-and-stitch of Interstate 35 through Central Austin.
City Council initiated the planning process in 2019 amid discussions over the potential redevelopment of the Palm School, which is owned by Travis County.
“The impetus for the planning process really came out of a desire to take advantage of all of the transformative energy coming to the district and ensure that the cultural and historic identity of the district is amplified rather than obliterated by the changes ahead,” Greathouse said.
The pandemic delayed much of the planning, with public engagement only beginning in earnest last spring. Over 700 people responded to an online survey and around 150 attended a visioning forum. There was also targeted outreach to East Austin residents and organizations. “We received rich input from a wide range of stakeholders,” Greathouse said.
The plan, roughly speaking, encompasses the area bounded by Lady Bird Lake, 15th Street, I-35 and Trinity Street. Image by city of Austin.
The plan outlines four broad goals: inclusive growth, cultural preservation, connectivity, and access to nature.
Planners, synthesizing community feedback, envision “a thriving 24-hour-a-day community (that) prioritizes mixed-use buildings with ground-floor spaces for retail, entertainment, recreation, cultural activities and services while continuing to support existing live music and cultural spaces,” Greathouse said.
The tangible outcomes include a potential governing body for the district that would oversee the plan’s implementation, an update to the Land Development Code to adjust building setbacks along the Waterloo Greenway, and an amendment to the Downtown Austin Plan to codify the Palm District’s boundaries.
Jessica Cohen, an ex officio member from the Board of Adjustment, expressed concern over the potential displacement of music venues along Red River Street as changes in the area make it a more desirable place for people to be.
“If APD goes, if ARCH (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless) goes, property values skyrocket – those places are done,” she said.
A string of packed agendas over the past few meetings left some commissioners wanting more time to provide thoughtful recommendations.
“We expect and want a lot, and I think the area is special,” Commissioner Patrick Howard said. “So maybe a little more time to brainstorm the possibilities may be helpful.”
The commission voted 8-1, with Commissioner Claire Hempel against, to postpone further discussion until Jan. 10. Council was scheduled to adopt the plan on Dec. 1, but will now have to wait until next year.
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City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin’s City Code. These include the abilities “[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements.” It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.
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