Convention Center scenarios hint at the future of Austin’s transit

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin presented a long-awaited assessment to Austin City Council members Tuesday on the future possibilities for the Austin Convention Center.

The researchers were tasked with looking at how anticipated developments and transit could play out with the possibility of a convention center expansion. You can read their findings here. 

Their findings reveal a glimpse into the future which the anticipated projects will create in downtown Austin. The report itself is more of an informational guide for city leaders than a recommendation. Its findings suggest that the type of growth that would come with an expanded convention center would demand Austin:

  • improve high-capacity transit
  • overhaul freeways
  • get more people traveling in ways besides cars

The convention center is currently located at the terminus for CapMetro’s Red Line downtown. If future growth continues as planned, the researchers explained that CapMetro’s Project Connect would add two more high capacity transit lines which would intersect at the new downtown station between the convention center and Brush Square. All of these researchers designs for the convention center would also work in tandem with Austin’s Great Streets program which is incrementally improving downtown streets and sidewalks. 

“I think we need a long-term, robust solution to mobility in the city and it’s got to be multi-modal and it’s got to deal with all kinds of mobility from pedestrian to high-speed rail, to automobiles — as long as they’re still around  — and scooters, and everything else,” said Dean Almy, director of the graduate program for Urban Design at UT’s School of Architecture. Almy was on the team of researchers who led the study.

“If we don’t plan for how all these things begin to integrate we are going to find some detrimental effects for sure,” he continued.

The report encourages smarter parking rather than additional parking.

“If the system is designed properly and there are choices in different modes of travel, from high-speed rail to Uber to — dare I say it– scooters, there isn’t the need for parking, you’re giving up too much in terms of compromising the public space of city and how the citizens of  can use that public space,”
 Almy said. 

He noted that the UT researchers did design these scenarios with a concrete vision for Austin’s new electric scooters, explaining that was beyond the scope of the study.

He said researchers went into the report “blindly” trying to avoid preconceptions of what would work best. They assessed what is going on in the city of Austin — what new buildings are being built and what transportation changes are to come — and compared that information to experiences of other cities. 

Almy explained that one of the most significant considerations for his team is the density which is expected to be added to downtown Austin. With density, will come more traffic. 

He is encouraging city leaders to continue putting pressure on bringing changes quickly to I-35. He said one possibility could be lowering I-35 so that it connects back to the rest of the traffic grid at Cesar Chavez Street, giving drivers alternate routes to take when the freeway is backed up. 

“Right now there are no alternate routes. So while the convention center and the organization of mobility related to the convention center is important, one of the reasons why this report is about the district and not a building is because the infrastructure improvements across the district are fundamental to making all of these future initiatives work together,” Almy said. 

“It’s just a real pinch point in terms of how the city is connected to the larger regional infrastructure,” he continued. “And the more options that we provide, the better.”

KXAN asked him whether not overhauling I-35 would have negative consequences for the convention center. 

“Whether that can effect convention center business, I can’t say, but clearly there is at least a perception that the section of the city is relatively lifeless in some areas, you know, some people are trying to get from Sixth Street to Rainey Street crossing fairly vacuous territory,” Almy said. 

He remains hopeful that investment in the areas around the convention center will bring in more people who will be walking, biking, and using transit around the area. 

“With all the investment in Waller Creek and Brush Park and potentially the convention center we have the ability to completely turn the section of the city around,” he said. 

Projected transit lines in downtown Austin. Excerpt from Frameworks for Placemaking: Alternative Futures for the Austin Convention District. Courtesy of the UT Austin Center for Sustainable Development.

CapMetro’s Board of directors adopted Project Connect in 2018, parts of the vision include improvements to the MetroRail Red Line. The agency began working last week on a new downtown MetroRail station. 

CapMetro is also working on improving transportation along several corridors. One of those, the Blue Line Corridor, could potentially include a connection to the downtown MetroRail station at the convention center. 

The details of future high-capacity transit to the convention center haven’t been ironed out yet, CapMetro said factors like costs and impacts will be analyzed over the next year. It is likely whatever transit improvements are finalized through Project Connect would be dependent on voter approval through a bond election in 2020. 

Austin City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan explained that maps within UT’s findings showed that people who work in the tourism industry live and commute from all different areas of Austin, including his district in far northwest Austin. He sees these possibilities for expansions in transit as ways to make it easier for people in every part of the city to access Austin.

“There’s also an opportunity through this expansion to provide better transit options for the community through all of downtown,” Flannigan said.   

He believes doing so would make better use of the space around the convention center, “by unlocking the ground-level space, which is now occupied by these ginormous exhibit halls, elevating those to second, third, and fourth stories, and re-engaging the streetscape for pedestrians and for buses and for whatever the future of high capacity transit looks like.”

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