It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Monday, February 25, 2008

Is There a Downtown Austin?

I have had quizzical reactions from Austinites when I suggest that Austin has no downtown. It's true that high density condos are going in, and it's true that there is a scattering of large commercial buildings in the center of town, but bricks don't make a downtown.

In Jane Jacobs' terms, an urban core is a "macro-destination", (mentioned in passing in this interesting article about suburban governance) a place where one goes to do more than one thing. When I go to downtown Chicago, or downtown Montreal or Manhattan or even Ottawa or Madison, I park the car and walk around. Often I have several destinations in mind: restaurant, theatre, grocery, bookstore.

Every time I have gone to central Austin I have driven to my destination, done one thing, and left. I suppose there has been an occasion where Momo's and Katz's have been combined; these are actually places I go that are in the same building; a music club and what passes in Texas for a deli style restaurant.

Recently I combined a trip to BookPeople and the Whole Foods flagship store. Those are very close on the map, but the walk between them is sufficiently unpleasant and inconvenient that I found myself driving from one vast parking lot to the other. Admittedly this makes me part of the problem. In Toronto or Montreal or even Houston there would probably be a pleasant climate controlled pedestrian tunnel linking them, but that's asking too much. In Madison or Ottawa, the walk between them would be short and pleasant, landscaped and decorated, attractive in itself. The idea of a five minute drive being less unpleasant than an absurdly circuitous fifteen minute walk mostly through huge parking lots and a pedestrian-hostile intersection just wouldn't come up.

I believe that Austin, like any mostly post-automotive city in America, expects this behavior. To the extent that my hypotehsis is true it means that the urban density downtown is mostly theater. It's not a macro-destination at all, just a dense cluster of microdestinations. Not surprisingly it has traffic problems.

Yes, the summers are wretched here, but eight months out of the year the climate is delightful. A little landscaping, a little attention to human scale, and a little less attention to the convenience of vehicles would go a long way toward pulling downtown together as a destination in itself. Unlike on the bicycle front, I think Austin is working hard toward this end. I just think it has a longer way to go than it likes to think.


John Mashey said...

Donald Shoup, "The High Cost of Free Parking".

Read the reviews in:

Buy this book, then give it to an Austin planner.


IF development ordinances mandate:
- a certain number of parking spaces per condo
- a number of spaces per employee, customer, or square footage of commercial or government establishment

- since it is much more expensive to dig underground parking, ground parking lots spread out, driving the buildings further apart [well, you do have a lot of land down there :-)]

- since in many cases, parking is free, it is a very large subsidy for using cars, and even when it isn't free, it is usually still so low-priced as to be a subsidy.

- and, the cost of the condo/apartment parking spaces gets baked into the purchase/rental prices ... so rational people would have to be nuts not to want a car... they already paid for the space, and for the highways, and besides, the buildings have been spread out so they *need* a car.

Nosmo said...

I once got stopped by a cop for walking home from the (old) airport. "we don't usually see people walking". I lived 1.5 miles away, and taxi drivers were often rude and annoyed by the short trip. So I usually ended up walking.

I never thought of walking as a suspicious act before I lived in Austin.

Michael Tobis said...

"[well, you do have a lot of land down there :-)]"

Irene and I have a motto regarding Texas: "no shortage".

Aside from a few minor exceptions (decent bread, sidewalks, water) there's no shortage of just about anything in Texas and there is definitely no shortage of Texas.

Dano said...

That's a cr*ppy street, with poor streetwall enclosure, and the terminating vista doesn't do anything to distract from the wide street, designed for auto throughput rather than multiple transportation modes.

All jargon aside, tree canopy would go a long way toward moderating the effects of dark pavement. American Forests has a lot of good ideas.



Michael Tobis said...

That's the original street in Austin. I think it was always that wide.

Regardless of their cluelessness about urban fabirc, Texans have always liked wide streets.

I think in the old days they sued to stand around in them. According to Hollywood lore they would have the occasional shootout there too.

Michael Tobis said...

"sued to" should read "used to" above.

Dano said...

Wide streets are OK as long as:

1. the building walls framing them are close to the street, fenestrated to make the walls permeable and at the human scale, and the ratio of width:height is less than 4:1.

2. There is sufficient safety features to allow pedestrians to cross without getting killed, e.g. refugia, medians, raised/signalized crosswalks, traffic calming features, etc.

Our phrase is: put that road on a diet!



Michael Tobis said...

Chicago has been doing wonderful things with landscaping the median on streets comparable to Congress Av. It's a benefit of a powerful mayoralty, though.

I can't imagine Texas businesses on that strip, no matter how hip they are (and this picture is taken just north of one of the most interesting commercial clusters in Austin, facing north so they are just behind your view) putting up with losing the center turn lane.

David B. Benson said...

No there there?

Michael Tobis said...

There's a lot to like about Austin; just don't plan on parking and walking around.