Riverside Drive and Town Lake Park
The Undoing of a Remarkable Compromise
How 7 Seconds of Commute Time Is Worth More Than a Great Park And The Lives of People Who Go There
by Larry Akers
Friends of the Parks of Austin Stakeholder Representative
Town Lake Park Community Project
Since the lands now known as Auditorium Shores and Butler Park were first conceived as parkland, the presence of Riverside Drive as a commuter roadway separating the two tracts has confounded any attempt to create a unified central park as the centerpiece of the Lady Bird Lake Corridor. The central design decision of the Town Lake Park Master Plan and the associated Community Events Center Venue Project was and remains the fate of the section of Riverside Drive between Butler Park and Auditorium Shores. That the road remains open and remains an issue 13 years after the Town Lake Park Master Plan called for its elimination is a case study of the political machinery of the City, both its public processes and its shadowy inner workings. The history of this indecision involves difficult, conscientiously negotiated compromises upset by after-the-fact double dealing, insubordinate resistance of City staff to directives from both City Council and a City Manager, and a municipal paralysis resulting from dueling perspectives on quality of life. That lives are likely at stake is a point that gets too frequently neglected.
This essay covers the history of the Riverside Drive question, the motivation for closure, and the processes engaged to resolve the issue from the mid-1980’s to the present. The executive summary contains links to sections detailing the summary’s major points, and the individual sections contain links to original source material. This background should help inform the process we engage again at the beginning of 2012 to again face the question of how to deal with the roadway that splits our centerpiece central park on Lady Bird Lake.
Removal of Riverside Drive in the middle of Town Lake Park
has been City policy since the late 1980’s, motivated by a concern for pedestrian safety within the park and the need to reclaim its right of way to form the contiguous green space necessary for a viable great park. When the Town Lake Park Community Events Center Venue Project was launched with a public vote in 1998, elimination of roads within the park was a primary goal of the project’s stakeholders. The fundamental negotiated agreement in the 1999 Master Plan process was to close Riverside Drive through the park in exchange for creating an opulent service yard for the Long Center and the Palmer Events Center (PEC), which forced the PEC into the heart of what had been long been envisioned as the park’s green space. The decision to close the road was carefully vetted by stakeholders, who ordered a professional preliminary traffic study, parking study, and full traffic impact analysis (TIA) of the site, its facilities, and the commuting grid. The finding of the TIA was that closure of the road would induce only a 6-7 second delay on the average peak time commuter passing through the area and across the river. The stakeholders all agreed this was an acceptable price to pay for the unification of the venue’s parklands and the safety of the park’s visitors. Signed by numerous community leaders including all the stakeholders, this agreement culminated in a Master Plan, adopted by City Council, that featured removal of Riverside Drive between the PEC and the railroad tracks.
No sooner was the compromise adopted than the City, in concert with development interests, began maneuvering to double-deal the agreement, attempting to keep the Riverside Drive intact as a commuting throughway. The Real Estate Council of Austin and other development interests pressured Council to hold off closing the road until the original traffic analyses could be trumped by a broader study, the Downtown Access and Mobility Plan (DAMP) Study, with more visionary traffic projections. The Great Streets Plan projects were analyzed in the study with measures to mitigate their impact on traffic flow. Not so with the Riverside closure, which was tacked onto the study at a late date and without the modelling mitigation measures which were suggested for the study. Even so, the DAMP study concluded commuter traffic would flow more easily if the eastbound flow of Riverside alongside Auditorium Shores were eliminated. City Council, wishing to close the roadway completely and upset that the mitigating measures were not considered, ordered the road to be narrowed to two lanes and instructed staff to perform subsequent studies identifying means of mitigating total closure of the roadway. Staff’s initial recommendation that mitigation should offset 100% of Riverside’s traffic load was seen as another aspect of a double standard for new development that placed higher requirements on the park for infrastructure burden than would be applied to any private development project.
Transportation staff never complied with Council and subsequent City Manager direction to perform mitigation studies, knowing that without the technical support Council requested, Council would be too uncomfortable with closure to order it. Absent any further analysis, when imminent development of Phase II of the park forced the issue, the Traffic Department negotiated with stakeholders for an interim reconfiguration of the road, narrowing it to its current two-lane, two-way setup with a roundabout. The design was such that park construction could proceed, and the remaining segment of the road could be inexpensively eliminated later when reasonable study was finally performed.
City Manager Futrell imposed a three-year delay on the project, but even during that time, the Traffic Department continued its insubordinate refusal to conduct the mandated studies. Concerned about pedestrian safety, stakeholders and the City negotiated a set of pedestrian safety measures for the road to be added to the interim design, and the current configuration was constructed in Fall, 2005, just before construction of Butler Park. Unfortunately, the safety measures have performed questionably, and the most important one, automated scheduled road closure gates, were clandestinely value-engineered out of the construction contract, undoing the important decision to close the road during heavier park use hours.
In 2009, a process to update the park Master Plan was aborted by Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza when the scope was determined by the community to remain similar to that of the original master plan, both with respect to construction cost and to the removal of Riverside. However, the process to that point had yielded a proposal to convert the Riverside right-of-way to a pedestrian cultural events plaza that would also preserve an emergency vehicle passageway.
As we approach construction of Phase III of the park on Auditorium Shores under Council mandate to finish revisiting the Master Plan, and despite another six years of stakeholder requests, the Traffic Department has yet to perform the mitigation studies mandated by City Council. They have produced only traffic counts, but these traffic counts show a steadily decreasing westbound use of the road. Current westbound peak traffic flows are only 55% of what they were when the original TIA projected complete closure of the road would induce only a 7 second delay in commuting, and only 44% of what was projected in the DAMP study, which noted that eastbound closure would decrease commuting times. Yet the Traffic Department insists, without study, that preserving this commuter roadway through the middle of our central park is necessary for traffic flow.
Confounded by intransigent insubordination by staff and the willful double-dealing of some community groups on the original site plan compromise, the community must now somehow resolve the Riverside issue, so that the Master Plan can be completed and construction on the next phase of the park can begin.
Two critical issues rise above a host of others for the need to close Riverside Drive to through traffic: pedestrian safety and the aggregation of contiguous parkland necessary to create a great park. We discuss those here, as well as the special opportunities that can arise with the abandonment of the road as a lightly used commuter shortcut.
To build a great park requires a great tract of land, aggregated so that its critical mass can create a rich park environment with a strong sense of identity and a variety of recreational opportunities. The problem with Town Lake Park is that there is not all that much land available, as great central parks go. The site chosen for the new civic events center encroaches so deeply into the center of the tract that only 21 of “the 54 acres” of parkland south of Barton Springs Road are actually available for park use. The only way to conceive of a great park on the remaining land is to unify it with the parkland north of Riverside. The EDAW planners understood this and insisted on unifying the tracts in their Master Plan.
Leaving Riverside in place would consume not only its right-of-way, which is quite substantial, but would also consign a broad band of parkland along the roadway to being a mere buffer against the roadway, practically useless for the kinds of recreation envisioned for this park. Witness the current situations with Riverside, with Barton Springs Road through Zilker Park, and with Cesar Chavez west of Lamar. Despite the fact that the Auditorium Shores tract has perhaps the most striking view in the city, the sweeping meadows between Riverside and the hike and bike trail are all but devoid of activity. Likewise in Zilker Park, where the only park visitors you are likely to see within 75 yards of Barton Springs Road those struggling to get across or along the road, and those folks are by no means relaxed. It is a tragedy that Zilker is so damaged by the road, but at least in Zilker there is enough land left over to support two wonderful recreational areas. This is simply not true in Town Lake Park, which is further inhibited by Barton Springs Road. Leaving the Riverside corridor through the heart of the tract reduces its prime recreational area to a rather small island within Butler Park and to the currently popular strip immediately alongside Town Lake.
Bisecting the park would disrupt many aspects of its design and concept. The theme of a Hill Country meadow flowing into a bottomland woods and a creekside grove would be fragmented. The possibility of ever devoting some large, central chunk of land to a special enhancement, for example creating an all-hours public plaza northwest of the performing arts and civic centers, or even a sculpture garden, would be completely foreclosed. The fundamental concept of Town Lake Park as being a respite park in the heart of the city stands no chance against the intrusion of commuter traffic. Only in certain recesses would there be any peace from the noise of commuter roadways.
Aesthetically, the road creates a major visual barrier, a great stripe streaming with cars across an otherwise magnificent landscape. The visual barrier would be even more unsightly if the right of way were used for parking as is the loop road in Zilker. A nice aspect of the Observation Hill is that it both screens the west end parking lot from view from afar and lifts the nearby viewer above the visual impact of the nearby parking lot. But nothing mitigates the visual intrusion of commuter traffic across the heart of the park.
The pedestrian and vehicular circulation pattern is one of the principal components of EDAW’s park design. Several major pedestrian and bicycle corridors in the park either align with Riverside or cross it, and and much of the network of strolling paths is very near the Riverside corridor. Clearly, people out for a relaxing stroll do not choose to take their walks near commuter roadways. The realignment of the Hike and Bike Trail around the proposed off-leash area would bring it right up alongside the street. The roadway barrier inhibits those attending events at the cultural facilities from venturing into the northern part of the park. And the strong connections that could be provided between Butler Park and the Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail are broken, just as they are between the two halves of Zilker Park.
But no aspect of the road is more frightening than the danger it poses to pedestrian park visitors. To date, the area has been composed of two functionally distinct parks, Butler and Auditorium Shores, used by different communities, neither of which commonly visits the other. But the finish-out of the park will make each half more attractive to users of the other, increasing the pedestrian crossings of the right-of-way. These users will include many more children, who will be attracted not only to the existing features, but also the Alliance Children’s Garden, the proximity of the proposed off-leash area, the new waterfront features, and hopefully the restroom that will be placed to serve the northwest quadrant of the park. How can the frequent crossings of the road by children, families, people managing dogs, and groups of friends out to have fun possibly be compatible with a stream of weary, impatient, distracted commuters in close
The traffic speed studies (1, 2, 3) conducted by the Transportation Department establish that excessive speeding is very common along this unsignalized stretch of road. The presence of parking areas along the right of way creates particular dangers, as lines of sight for both motorists and pedestrians are blocked by parked cars.
The ultimate tragedy would be for the City’s resistance to closing the commuter roadway through its central park to result in the death or serious injury of pedestrian park visitors. We have been lucky so far, but as time passes and park use increases, the tragedy becomes ever more likely.
Some of these points and others have been stated clearly since the planning phases of the project, exemplified by this essay that was circulated during the early days describing the case being made for closure during the master planning and immediately subsequent phases of the project.
Closing the roadway, aside from relieving the negative aspects of the road, would open up new opportunities and fiscal bonuses. The west end parking lot could be gracefully doubled by reflecting it over onto the abandoned roadbed, provided needed parking for the northwest quadrant. The significant cost of constructing a new pedestrian bridge over West Bouldin Creek could be avoided, as the existing street bridge over the creek would be plenty wide enough to accommodate vehicle access to the parking lot, the Hike and Bike Trail, and a commuter bike path. There would be no need for an anticipated new westbound commuter bike path, as the existing hardscape could be used. And there would be no need to invest in automated closure devices to shut the street for pedestrian-only hours.
Most significantly, the abandoned roadbed could be used as the hardscape for the center of an events plaza that could accommodate festivals like Art City Austin, the wine and food festival, and others, while also being integrated into an all-hours public plaza that would come to be identified as Austin’s front porch. The plaza could have a distinctive identity and attraction and be fringed with other elements of interest, such as an art park or sculpture garden. The retention of a hardscape stretch could also support the passage of emergency vehicles through the area as necessary.
What is now a detriment and liability for the park stands ready to be turned into a great asset.
The History of Riverside Drive in Town Lake Park
We turn now to the history of the debate over Riverside Drive and its impact on the park, leading up to our current situation with the updating of the park’s Master Plan.
That creating a great central park on the shores of Lady Bird Lake between South First and South Lamar required the removal of that portion of Riverside Drive was recognized as soon as the district was being considered as parkland rather than as a site for a convention center. In the mid-1980’s, a volunteer group, the Town Lake Park Alliance, pursued and achieved the parkland dedication of the 54 acres of public lands south of Riverside Drive adjacent to Auditorium Shores, and while they were at it, the parkland dedication of over 300 acres of other public lands along the riverfront. Slides from a historical presentation about the group summarizes the history and impact of the Town Lake Park Allliance.
After the parkland dedications were finally achieved in 1987, an enormously participatory public process culminated with in the completion of the Town Lake Comprehensive Plan, which covered all the parklands from Tom Miller Dam to Longhorn Dam and beyond to what is now Guerrero Colorado River Park. Over 4000 individuals were contacted for participation, with the consultant group led by Larry Speck conducting 114 personal interviews and holding over 200 meetings with interested civic groups.
The central feature of the plan was the creation of a great new central park in the district that is now the Town Lake Park Community Events Center Venue Project. A cornerstone of that treatment was the removal of this stretch of Riverside Drive, as indicated in this schematic of the central portion of the plan.
After a full round of review by City of Austin boards and commissions, the Town Lake Comprehensive Plan was adopted unanimously by City Council in 1988 and subsequently codified in the Town Lake Comprehensive Plan Ordinance, the only comprehensive plan ever so codified by the City of Austin.
Adding to the weight of public input, the comprehensive was incorporated intact into AustinPlan, the City’s master plan developed during the late 1980’s, and the R/UDAT plan (*cite) for downtown. A major economic development report commissioned from the SRI International Public Policy Center by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, “Creating an Opportunity Economy” recommended the City “Develop Town Lake as a “Great Park”, comparable to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco or Central Park in New York.
Yet after clearly expressing its desires and plans, for the next ten years the community awaited the impetus that would untangle the interlocking uses on the Town Lake Park site and enable the park to be realized.
The impetus came from the University of Texas, which served an imminent eviction notice to the major local performing arts groups who had been performing at UT’s Bass Concert Hall. Thus began the search for a new homw and the push to convert the old Palmer Auditorium to a new performing arts center. A stakeholder group consisting of representatives of ARTS Center Stage (representing the Austin Symphony, Austin Lyric Opera, and Ballet Austin), the Junior League of Austin (representing civic events center users), the South Austin Coalition of Neighborhoods, and the Friends of the Parks of Austin (representing park interests), coalesced to push for the creation of the Town Lake Park Community Events Center Venue Project, which would meld a new performing arts center, a new civic events facility, and a great new Central Park on the parkland composed of Auditorium Shores and the “54 acres” south of Riverside Drive. The venue’s funding mechanism would be a new tax on cars rented locally. After shepharding the creation of the venue through a successful public election in 1998, the stakeholders and the City of Austin formulated a set of goals for the project in a Memorandum of Understanding and pledged mutual support of each other’s goals in planning and implementation of the new cultural park. Every stakeholder signed the memorandum.
The goals for the parkland development in the memorandum, were:
- Maximize the contiguous open space with emphasis on
massing rather than fragmenting this space
- Create a continuous and significant swath of open space west
of Palmer as the centerpiece of the cultural park, opening the
site Barton Springs Road to Town Lake
- Minimize vehicular traffic and parking within the open space
- Give the park external appeal and maintain attractive sight lines
within the park
- Observe the parkland dedication and use the Town Lake Comprehensive
Plan as the planning foundation for the park development
Every stakeholder understood, from the language of the memorandum, from emails and written material distributed at meetings, and from many discussions within the group, that satisfying each one of these goals required eliminating the streets within the district.
The 1999 Town Lake Park Master Plan
Planning the multi-faceted project was an extraordinarily complex process involving many competing interests. But amidst all the work of developing programming, operational, capacity, access, fiscal, cultural, recreational, safety, aesthetic, legal, and transitional requirements, two fundamental issues rose above all others in the group’s deliberations — the fate of Riverside Drive and the placement of the new facilities: the civic events center, an on-site parking garage, and the service yard area that would be used by both the new civic events facility and the Long Center. Resolving these two issues would set the parameters for much of what would follow and allow the other pieces to fall into place.
The impact of closing Riverside on both the commuter traffic grid and the access to venue facilities was a primary concern and required both initial assessment and subsequent thorough analysis. To this end the professional traffic analysis firm WHM and Associates was contracted to perform a preliminary traffic impact analysis. Since 1998 traffic counts showed that Riverside Drive carried only 20% as much traffic as Barton Springs Road, closure of the road seemed intuitively reasonable to stakeholders. WHM agreed. In its preliminary traffic study, WHM concluded, “it may be feasible to remove the section of Riverside Drive between South 1st Street and Lamar Boulevard”.
With this reassurance, the stakeholder group proceeded to conceive what the project might look like with Riverside Drive closed to through traffic. But all stakeholders remained concerned about the impact that closing Riverside Drive would have on both commuter travel times and access to events at both the events center and the Long Center. No one wanted to go down a path that would be a detriment to either the events or the community’s quality of life. So WHM was hired to follow their initial assessment with a complete traffic impact analysis (TIA) on the street and access scenarios.
The complete WHM Traffic Impact Analysis was an extensive piece of professional work modeling traffic flows around the larger area both north and south of the river with state of the art CORSIM modeling technology. It used both current traffic counts and a quantified assessment of future traffic growth through year 2005, including a factor for background demand growth and assuming the completion of eleven major emerging development projects north of the river. A thorough parking demand analysis was also part of the study. WHM calibrated the impacts on levels of service at over 25 area intersections and the composite commuting delays induced by the project, modeling four configurations of Riverside Drive: as-is, as-is with area grid enhancements, westbound-only, and complete closure.
The TIA modelled the performance of area interesections, with results expressed in standard terms of levels of service (LOS). These levels ran from A (best) to F (worst). Their findings for the controlled intersections along the major thoroughfares bordering the project were as follows, with each intersection represented by a LOS grade.
- Lamar — existing: DCB — Riverside closed: DBB (slightly improved)
- Barton Springs — existing: DBDBC — Riverside closed: DAECB (net same)
- South First — existing: DDC — Riverside closed: ECD (slightly worse)
- Lamar — existing: DDCA — Riverside closed: CCDA (improved)
- Barton Springs — existing: DBCCC — Riverside closed: CADBB (improved)
- South First — existing: CDB — Riverside closed: DCB (net same)
In general, the impact of Riverside closure was marginally longer queues on Drake Bridge and reduced queues and delay on the Lamar bridge. The only intersection pushed from acceptable (levels A-D) to unacceptable (E-F) level of service was Barton Springs Road at South First. Unacceptability at level E was defined as an average stopped delay of 40-60 seconds, an interesting range considering the cycle times at many complex intersections, including most along expressway access roads, commonly approximate two minutes.
The report’s verbiage regarding average vehicle trip delay was oddly couched in percentage rather than absolute time increases, and the oral presentation of the results by WHM’s Mike McInturff was even more oblique, focusing on the cumulative number of hours spent in traffic delay for all vehicles collectively during a peak period. These means of explanation tended to magnify the perception of the impact of the closure, while obscuring the impact on the average commuter trip. Commute-time impact from complete closure relative to the As-Is with enhancements configuration was stated as an 8.1% (a.m.) and 7.5% (p.m.) additional delay.
Though the textual explanation of delay times, repeated in executive summary, and the oral presentation seemed designed to obscure the truth of the matter, the hard numbers in the report summary described what this meant in absolute terms and made the facts of the analysis very clear in this table of delay times per vehicle trip through the district and across the river:
Commute Time Delay
- 1999 conditions: 2 min 40 sec
- 2005 traffic load, 4-lane configuration with mitigation: 2 min 32 sec
- 2005 traffic load, Riverside westbound only: 2 min 38 sec
- 2005 traffic load, Riverside closed: 2 min 38 sec
- 1999 conditions: 2 min 2 sec
- 2005 traffic load, 4-lane configuration with mitigation:2 min 9 sec
- 2005 traffic load, Riverside westbound only:2 min 12 sec
- 2005 traffic load, Riverside closed:2 min 16 sec
The core truth of the TIA was that closing Riverside completely, versus keeping all four lanes as was, would lengthen a cross-river, peak hour commuting trip through the area by six seconds in the morning and seven seconds in the evening. Percentage increases were disingenuous: 8 percent of a small number is still a small number. In light of this analysis, the policy decision involved weighing 6.5 seconds of induced delay against the enormous public benefits to both park visitor safety and park scope, design, and amenity made possible by the closure.
Bouyed by the findings from the TIA, the Junior League, parks, ARTS Center Stage, neighborhood stakeholders, and City participants entered the heart of the master planning process secure in the knowledge that removing the roadway would have insignificant impact on commuters, and that the Town Lake Comprehensive Plan vision of removing the roadway between South First Street and the railroad to unify the parkland tracts and protect pedestrians was entirely feasible.
Master Planning — Building Site Issues
The core questions of the master planning process then became the placements of the various new facilities. Neighborhood and parks stakeholders adopted a position that all the major facility development on the site, i.e., the civic events facility, Long Center, and their common parking garage and service yard, could be constructed in a development zone east of a north-south boundary defined by Civic Drive (which separated the Palmer site from Riverside Center) and extending south to preserve a stand of legacy trees in an island of the Palmer parking lot that were dedicated to the fallen soldiers of World War II, and continuing to the east side of the intersection of Barton Springs Road and Bouldin. The master planning firm EDAW initially agreed that there was sufficient land area within that zone to accomplish this.
However ARTS Center Stage and the Palmer Auditorium staff pushed back extremely hard against this notion, insisting that they required an expansive service yard. Accommodating this requirement in the L-shaped geometry of the available site meant that the entire civic events building would need to be pushed to the west entirely beyond the proposed development boundary. The consumption of such a vast amount of parkland right in the heart of what was to have been the park’s green space placed enormous stress on the viability of constructing a great central park on the remaining parkland west of the events centers. The Junior League, being representative of the needs of the events center, tilted toward the ARTS/Palmer position on the question. This conflict was the central point of debate leading up to and including the master planning charettes of Spring, 1999.
Extensive background information informed the weeklong public design charette for the venue project, the watershed event in the planning process. The charette included major public meetings including one specifically organized by the Downtown Austin Alliance to reach the business and real estate community, which participated heavily in the process.
During the charette, under great pressure from the City Convention Center’s leadership and Palmer Auditorium operator and from ARTS Center Stage to create a “Cadillac” service area, the master planners from EDAW pushed the Palmer Events Center footprint deep into the green space conceived as the heart of Town Lake Park. The planners recognized that after sacrificing this significant chunk of core parkland, the only way to retain the contiguous green space required for a great park was to remove the central portion of Riverside Drive. Wishing for the events center to be successful and abiding by the Memorandum of Understanding to support Palmer’s goals, the other stakeholders under great duress accepted the Palmer location, but only contingent on the absolute assurance that Riverside Drive would be removed from the heart of the park. This was the central agreement of the entire master plan, the lynchin on which the entire development plan turned. All stakeholders, including ARTS Center Stage (the Long Center and their constituent performing arts groups), signed on to the agreement in writing. It was a hard-won compromise, a deal, a brokered agreement which all stakeholder parties and a broad cross-section of community leaders in attendance signed in endorsement.
But trouble was afoot. With the Long Center and Convention Center Departments having gotten essentially everything they wanted out of the site plan, with the building and service yard locations firmly in place, and with EDAW completing its work on the Master Plan consistent with the guidance it had been given in the public workshops and by stakeholders, the double dealing began immediately, and the monied powers went to work. Just before the Master Plan was submitted to City Council, an ad hoc business coalition including the Real Estate Council of Austin (RECA), the Austin Hotel/Motel Association, the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and other real estate interests, adopted a resolution, originally drafted on RECA stationery, calling for Riverside Drive to be retained as a commuter roadway.
In the face of this challenge, EDAW maintained unequivocally that road should be closed. Late attempts may have been made to misrepresent their position, because as the plan was moving to City Council, EDAW felt obliged to issue an extraordinary communique, saying, “To clarify our position we offer the following: EDAW does recommend the closing of Riverside Drive between First Street and the RR (railroad) right-of-way, within Town Lake Park. It is our recommendation as the park master planners, charged with creating a great urban park, that the closing of this segment of the street provides the best opportunity for creating a significant and contiguous open space in the heart of the city. We hope that this statement helps clarify and resolve this particular issue.”
Stakeholder groups were shocked, then, after approving the EDAW Master Plan, to see that a new page 5, was inserted at the 11th hour in the package of the plan sent to City Council. The insertion proposed an alternative that retained a scaled-back Riverside Drive through the heart of the previously unified green space. The source of the insertion was not revealed. Stakeholder objections to the unreviewed insertion were ignored, and the Master Plan went to City Council for adoption with the alternative remaining and a recommendation for more study, presumably to try for a third time to find a technical justification for retaining the roadway. Current data could not justify the closure, so new data had to be created.
The new data came with the possibility of a third study of the closure being attached to the Downtown Access and Mobility Plan (DAMP) Study. DAMP would be predicated on traffic demand projected after eventual full buildout of all the redevelopment projects envisioned for the study area. The study was motivated primarily by an effort to analyze and justify elements of the “Great Streets Plan” then being promoted by some downtown interests. Park advocates were supportive of the DAMP effort, provided the study would be as evenhanded about Riverside and the park development as it would to the proposed “Great Streets” projects that motivated the study. It seemed reasonable to study additional predicted demand with an eye to creatively absorbing its impact.
However, to stakeholders’ dismay, the closure of Riverside Drive was not included in the initial DAMP Study statement of work. It appeared that supporters of the DAMP Study, the Traffic Department, and the City were set on avoiding the very study that had been used as an excuse for delaying the decision on Riverside closure adopted in the park Master Plan.
After stakeholders protested, the study contract was amended to include a closure analysis for Riverside. The stakeholders, however, were not allowed to vet the criteria or scenarios to be used in the Riverside analysis. Suspicions that a double standard might be applied turned out to be very well founded. Whereas the delays imposed by the Great Streets plan elements were presented to the public in balance with mitigating measures that would streamline the grid and offset the impact of the desired changes, the Riverside closure was modeled without the benefit of obvious modifications to the grid that would help absorb the redirected traffic. During the study, stakeholders suggested what some mitigating adjustments to the grid might be, and Transportation Department staff identified a number of the pinch points that contributed to the problem of load absorption. Each of these pinch points had obvious solutions, which were suggested for contribution to the study. However, none of these suggestions were incorporated. Not surprisingly, since the Riverside closure was modeled in nearly the worst possible scenario, the DAMP Study produced delay factors that argued against complete closure, and no offsetting proposals were offered.
Though these problems became apparent weeks before the study went to City Council, and there was plenty of time to incorporate mitigation measures into the Riverside assessment, staff did not allow this to happen. Austan Librach was quoted in the American Statesman as saying to do so would be expensive, and any expense over $5000 could not be tolerated.
Even so, the DAMP Study concluded that traffic flow would be significantly smoother with Riverside’s eastbound through traffic eliminated than if it were retained, even in the existing four-lane configuration. The study also observed that within the middle of the park district, one lane was sufficient to handle the westbound flow without inducing any delay whatsoever, provided the intersections at South Lamar and South First remained in a multi-lane configuration.
The Riverside component of the DAMP study was attacked strenuously for its methodology. English ex-pat and professionally trained traffic analyst Paul Mullen issued a report faulting the absence of any source-destination analysis, for presupposing without evidence the distribution of redirected Riverside traffic load, and for not accounting for driver discretion in adjusting their commuting patterns that would correct the imbalances derived in the DAMP modeling. For example, though the study’s hypothesized traffic redistribution created greater stress on Drake Bridge than on the Lamar bridge, it did not attempt to adjust its parameters, as drivers would, to choose Lamar as a less congested route. Moreover, Mullen made observations similar to the park advocates, that if the redirection of traffic created pinch points in the grid, for each of these there were solutions that would mitigate the induced complications.
Park stakeholders, meanwhile, accumulated the list of traffic grid adjustments, the locations of several of which were identified in the CORSIM modeling, and presented them to the City with requests that they be incorporated into follow-up CORSIM modeling. Several of these suggestions required little capital investment, and some of those that did were emerging as likely projects for the City to implement. City Traffic Engineer Gordon Derr developed a similar, largely overlapping list of mitigation measures suitable for investigation.
DAA and RECA, meanwhile, were divided on the DAMP Study recommendations. For RECA, no induced delays or lane restrictions of any kind were acceptable. DAA took the more moderate position that the delays induced by the Great Streets proposals, up to 93 seconds for some single elements and cumulatively much more across all their endorsed projects, were worth the advantages of performing the conversions. But even knowing that the delays induced by Riverside closure could have been easily and substantially reduced, neither group was willing to balance the benefits of not having an unimpeded four-lane commuter raceway through the middle of a space-constricted central park against any delays imposed on commuters. RECA’s hard line stance left no room for accommodating broader civic goals in the street grid. DAA was happy to trade pain for gain in the CBD, but not for a central park.
The City Transportation Department presented the DAMP Study results at a series of public and board and commission meetings. Stakeholders tracking the meetings had to repeatedly point out that the Riverside component of the study had not been balanced with mitigation strategies as had the other projects modelled in the study. After a series of these corrected presentations, the Department finally settled into admitting that the mitigation measures had not been studied as directed.
The City’s Environmental Board, then led by Lee Leffingwell, reviewed the staff’s recommendations on near-term road projects in light of the DAMP Study, and resolved that contrary to the staff recommendation, Riverside Drive should be eliminated from the roadway plan and permanently closed to motor vehicle traffic, citing pedestrian safety and the development goals of the park.
When it became apparent that the DAMP study had been fouled by its refusal to include mitigating measures in the Riverside analysis, Charles Betts, Executive Director of the Downtown Austin Alliance, spoke privately with this author (Larry Akers), conceding that an “acceptable compromise” would be to retain the roadway with one lane of traffic in both directions through the heart of the park. When Mr. Akers reminded Mr. Betts that the DAMP study had shown that retaining any eastbound lane induced delay into the system, Betts repeated simply that one lane in each direction was “a good compromise”.
By the time the DAMP Study went to City Council, the problems with the study expressed in the Mullen report and the protests of park advocates that the study had been rigged to not allow for Riverside mitigation were understood by the Councilmembers. Council heard the staff presentation of the DAMP concept plan and enacted various resolutions in response. With respect to Riverside, there were two staff recommendations to Council. Commensurately, there were two parts to the Council Resolution 021205-66C. The first was to immediately reduce Riverside to one lane in each direction. This recommendation was peculiar in that it reflected Charles Betts’ so-called “acceptable compromise” while neglecting the DAMP study’s findings regarding eastbound traffic. The second instructed the Transportation Department to “Continue to develop alternatives that would make viable the removal of Riverside Drive as an at-grade roadway through Town Lake Park. (Riverside Drive shall not be permanently closed through the Park until such time as alternatives are implemented to mitigate Riverside Drive’s lost traffic capacity.)” Significantly, Council voted to amend their draft resolution, which had used the word “replace” rather than “mitigate”, establishing that the viability of removing the road did not depend on mitigating measures capable of absorbing 100% of the impact of Riverside’s closure. Developing the alternatives meant devising mitigating measures that would help absorb the load and modeling those measures with the City’s new analytical tools.
The Transportation Department never acted on the second part of the resolution. Despite frequent reminders from project stakeholders, and despite the very specific agenda for study, the work was simply never done. The City now owned the CORSIM tools and had learned to use them in-house, but the Transportation Department would not perform the work directed by Council. Planning Department Director Librach informed the stakeholders that the City engineers who could perform the modeling
“had other things on their plate”.
The Transportation Department, with vocal support from RECA, did offer to conduct temporary closures of the road to study the impact on traffic flow. These would obviously be biased toward failure. Their temporary and random nature would lead to driver route surprise and confusion, a prime contributor to traffic flow delay and an inhibitor of adaptive response over time. Being designed for failure, they would be used to justify retaining the road in its full configuration. Stakeholders sternly rejected this approach.
Major new central city development projects are frequently given special consideration and approved, despite placing place additional stress on the commuting grid. The policy judgement to accept such projects is to weigh the benefit of those projects against the stress on the traffic grid and the public expense of infrastructure support. Yet the City, or the powers behind the City, have refused to accept Town Lake Park on the same terms, as a project that places a demand on the grid whose pain is justified by the public benefit of the project.
With commercial development, the additional demand is from the new vehicle trips it generates, primarily at peak traffic hour, and the benefit is the increment of tax base. For the park, which generates relatively little demand, particularly at peak hours, according to the WHM study, the demand is the offloading of Riverside Drive by its closure, and the benefit is obvious — all those things for which we celebrate and hope for this park.
The powers that be have stymied this park, particularly with regard to traffic impact, and will not be satisfied unless the park and its street closures impose NO additional peak hour demand on the street grid. To some of them, the public benefit becomes irrelevant unless there is no traffic impact. In the logic of the arguments of the business interests who have fought the park, there is no equation, no place for the weighing of public benefit against traffic impact. The street grid capacity is there to serve private development, not public amenity. This philosophy, this double standard, is out of character with the community and should not be credited in policy decisions.
The Traffic Department was playing from a position of power. Council, despite its desire to do so, would not vote to close Riverside Drive without analytically derived, quantitative evidence showing that the closure’s impact, should there be any, could be reasonably mitigated. Only the Traffic Department could provide this evidence. No study meant no evidence, and no evidence meant no closure. With the Palmer Events Center now open for operation, no one could reasonably argue that if the City would not close Riverside Drive in accordance with its Master Plan agreement, the other side of the agreement should also be renoeged and the PEC moved back behind the line between the old Palmer port-a-coucher and Bouldin Avenue. The department was forsaking its responsibility of providing professional assessments to the City Council that the Council could weigh in the larger context of public benefit in coming to policy decisions. Instead the department usurped the policy-making role of City Council.
As the Traffic Department’s insubordination became more apparent and the onset of Phase II design was imminent, neighborhood and park advocates complained again to City Council and the City Manager. The situation became sufficiently embarassing to the Transportation Department that they conceded to a meeting with stakeholders and Planning Department Director Librach to come to some sort of agreement on how to treat Riverside Drive through Phase II construction.
How strange then, in the light of Mr. Betts’ offer to “compromise”, was the Transportation and Planning Departments’ proposal to retain Riverside as a two-lane road in the heart of the park, with one lane moving in each direction? When elimination of the eastbound lane was proposed on the grounds that it induced commuting delay, the Transportation and Planning Departments were firm. One lane in each direction. Again, since the WHM study showed the eastbound lanes could be closed with no negative impact, and since the DAMP Study analysis showed that retaining the eastbound lanes actually slowed movement through the grid, on what basis was the decision really made, and by whom? It was becoming increasingly easy to imagine that the position taken by RECA, the DAA, and the other real estate interests to hold onto the commuter road through the park might be threatened by the result of any balanced, monitored analysis of closure options, so the analysis must be prevented.
Out of this negotiation came the interim design that is currently in place on the ground. Riverside would be reconfigured to two lanes, one in each direction, with a roundabout north of the PEC and the western portion of the old eastbound roadway reused for parking. This was to be an interim configuration, allowing yet more time for the Traffic Department to perform its mitigation studies. The layout was such that the road could be easily closed for events and on weekends. Moreover, when an ultimate decision to close the road completely was reached, the roundabout could serve as the east end terminus, the new west end parking lot could be reflected to the north to double its capacity, and the portion of the road between the parking lot and the roundabout could be easily and inexpensively removed. This configuration would allow the Phase II work to be done without sacrificing more precious parkland to a new west end parking lot. The ultimate removal of the central link could be performed for the next phase of park development, north of the Riverside right of way, and this could be done without touching the newly developed Phase II area that came to be known as Butler Park.
Phase II, Attempt II
Toby Futrell’s delay of Phase II park construction re-set the time line for a 2005 endeavor. As the new construction date approached, stakeholders continued to push for the Riverside closure mitigation studies to be performed, and the Transportation Department, defying the City Council resolution, continued to stonewall. The Council resolution to narrow the road to one lane in each direction, however, forced the question of fine-tuning the previously negotiated design for pedestrian safety.
In the weeks leading up to the Riverside construction, with the Butler Park design essentially completed, the City and stakeholders met intensively to determine how to handle pedestrian and park visitor safety in the continued presence of Riverside Drive. Clearly, to the many children who would come to enjoy the Observation Hill, the Liz Carpenter Fountain, and the other park amenities, children who might act impulsively, the roadway was a threat. Likewise to the pedestrians and bicyclists who would converge through the park to the Hike and Bike Trail and the new Pfluger Bridge.
Stop signs at crosswalks and active speed controls like speed humps or heavily textured pavement were rejected by the Traffic Department. The Department again offered to conduct and monitor temporary closures, and the idea was rejected for the same reasons previously stated.
Nevertheless, in the mediated meetings stakeholders and the City agreed to a package of measures to improve pedestrian safety. These included pedestrian activated crosswalk controls in the form of embedded crosswalk lights at multiple sites to stop oncoming traffic, reducing the speed limit to 30 mph, ensuring the roadway transition area configuration calmed traffic to speeds below 30 mph, safe islands in the medians near the parking lot and where Riverside narrowed from four lanes to two, automatic closure of the road on weekends, holidays, and on weeknights when events were being held in the park, signage, and a number of other measures. Stakeholders were greatly skeptical that these measures would be adequate, particularly the embedded lights, which would be scarcely visible to westbound traffic with the sun low in the sky at that time of peak park activity in the evening.
Adopting the Riverside Realignment Construction Contract
No progress on the roadway could come without a struggle.
A last ditch effort to upset the interim realignment plan was mounted by the Long Center, which objected that the realignment would upset its ability to accommodate bus drop-offs for large performances for children. Project Manager Robert Holland (see a summary of his report) easily dispensed with this objection, pointing out how the roundabout accommodated a bus drop-off plan and measuring the configuration to illustrate that there was far more than adequate on-site space for bus parking. Typically, performing arts centers utilize off-site parking and a shuttle plan for such events, but the on site accommodations were so generous that Long Center would not need to do this. Furthermore, the roundabout was a solution to the problems anticipated with automobile queues backing up into South First Street as attendees arrived at the parking garage to attend major performances. The roundabout offered an ample queuing configuration.
When City Council considered the realignment construction contract, Councilmember Jennifer Kim offered some last resistance, parroting RECA’s familiar objections to giving up any lane of the grid anywhere, but the argument had no technical support. An opponent of any modification of the four-lane, divided Riverside, she secured a resolution directing a Council presentation on the impact of narrowing Riverside to two lanes, “with particular attention to increased traffic density downtown”. The briefing apparently gave Council no reason to hesitate in resolving to reduce the street.
With backup material briefly summarizing the negotiated pedestrian safety measures, City Council considered and adopted a contract to perform the realignment construction with the pedestrian mitigation measures that had been negotiated. Again, there was an explicit understanding that the modified configuration was to be an interim measure, sufficient to not interfere with Phase II park construction, but needing to be revisited before Phase III was designed.
As inadequate as the pedestrian measures may have been in concept, they have been failures in implementation. As anticipated, failures by drivers to observe the crosswalk lights are very frequent. Some of the activation equipment is inoperative.
Worse, without the knowledge of the Public Works Director who oversaw the mediated negotiations, the automatic road closure mechanisms were “value-engineered” out of the Riverside realignment construction contract and never revived. The Transportation Department attempted to reinvent the negotiated road closure agreement, claiming the closures were to be “experimental and only occasional”. For this gambit, Transportation had to be overruled by the other departments. Performance of the agreed upon closures was then pushed on the Parks Department, which had to bear the cost of closure permits and the placing, manning, and removal of unsightly, temporarary barricades every weekend. There was no way their stressed operations budget could accommodate all this, and after four weeks, the weekend closures became a thing of the past.
So while the re-routing of the street has achieve some traffic calming, the failure of the other measures continues to endanger pedestrians. Drivers regularly and sometimes aggressively exceed the speed limit through the heart of the park. Traffic speed studies (East of roundabout, Oct 19-22, 2011, West of roundabout, Oct 19-22, 2011, West of roundabout, Oct 1, 2011) have repeatedly observed speeds as high as 68 MPH on this stretch of the street, and drivers regularly pass through at speeds from 45-55 MPH.
Only by sheer luck has the tragedy of pedestrian injury or death in the park been avoided to date.
Over four years have passed since the opening of Butler Park. Financial improprieties by the Convention Center Department and defensive maneuvers by the Law Department and City Manager have induced delays in the project and consumed the time and energy of project stakeholders. Yet exposure of the financial irregularities has led to a revival of the park development effort. City Council resolved to complete the master plan update initiated in 2009 and ordered the City Manager to prepare a finance plan for finishing the park.
Despite the passage of time, the Transportation Department has continued its refusal to conduct studies modeling the closure of Riverside Drive with the mitigation measures to help absorb its redirected traffic. When pressed, they will occasionally turn over some traffic counts, as if those provide sufficient evidence to put the question to rest.
Yet in the mean time, two of the mitigation measures that were proposed as likely means for absorbing Riverside’s traffic have come to pass. The first was the conversion of Cesar Chavez to two-way traffic, enabling a left turn from Drake Bridge onto westbound Cesar Chavez. Studies have clearly established that the demand on Riverside is driven not by commuters trying to reach or depart from downtown, but rather by commuters from the southeast trying to reach or return from northbound Mopac or Lamar. The direct left turn onto Cesar Chavez relieved the previously significant delay induced by having to loop through a chicane of one-way streets downtown to accomplish the same turn.
The recent completion of the Pfluger Bridge extension across Cesar Chavez, though not necessarily obvious, should be a contributor to relief for Riverside Traffic. CORSIM modeling during the DAMP study showed that the high frequency of pedestrian crossings of Cesar Chavez near Lamar required lengthy pedestrian crossing time at the signals at Sandra Muraida and B. R. Reynolds. The bridge gives pedestrians a safe, elevated option. This should allow the crossing signal times to be reduced, or in the case of Sandra Muraida, eliminated, significantly increasing the capacity of Cesar Chaves and helping induce traffic to cross Drake Bridge before proceeding west.
The other mitigation measures proposed by the City were not so capital intensive. As park advocates have stated for nine years now, these should be modeled to determine how much load from Riverside could be mitigated, and to see whether the remaining delay would fall within bounds judged to be an acceptable tradeoff for protecting pedestrians in our great central park on the lake and for creating the contiguous green space that will finally allow the park to become great.
During the 2009 master planning sessions, the idea took shape of converting the Riverside right-of-way between the roundabout and the Observation Hill parking lot into a community festival plaza.
The plaza would become home for events like the Art City Austin Festival and the Austin Wine and Cheese Festival, among others, that have recently been held on downtown City streets. The street closures have resulted in a variety of problems related to downtown mobility and access to churches and businesses, and the closures also impose a heavy direct cost on the events. These events have a city-wide identity strongly linked to downtown, and their continued success depends in part on maintaining that identity. Providing a home for these and other cultural events within the cultural Town Lake Park would allow them to retain that identity, albeit in an even more attractive setting, solve the street closure problems downtown, greatly simplify event logistics and reduce costs, and help establish the park as the cultural center of the city.
Moreover, even when not in use for major events, the plaza could become the front porch for the city, a place for gatherings both formal and informal, a place to enjoy a lunch outdoors, people watch, meet friends, and do all the other things a strongly identified public plaza supports. The plaza would be conceived as a cultural site, its design being evocatively artistic in its own right, while also serving as a venue for display of artworks and an axis around which cultural features like art gardens could be placed.
Some hardscape would need to remain, both to support the ingress and egress of vehicles and equipment necessary to mount a festival, and also to provide a path through which emergency vehicles could pass, providing them essentially the same access they currently have with the street. A strip of the existing pavement structure could serve this purpose, minimizing the cost of maintaining that access.
But the area would remain one for pedestrians, safe from the cut-through commuter traffic that currently cuts the park in two with an unpleasant no-mans land and threatens the safety of pedestrians crossing from one half to the other. Furthermore, the truncated portion to the west could be repurposed for the additional parking that will be needed, and which would need to otherwise consume the precious remaining parkland. And absent through traffic, the existing street bridge over West Bouldin Creek would likely be sufficient to serve segregated driveway access, bike path, and hike and bike trail use, eliminating the need for an expensive new pedestrian bridge for the trail.
2011: The Latest Word from the Transportation Department
To date, the mitigation measures have still not been studied, nor has the Transportation Department indicated any willingness to do so. The department’s intention is clear: Riverside will remain a commuter roadway bisecting the park and injecting commuter traffic into the park at peak park usage hours in the evening.
A July 6 memo from Director Rob Spillar states, “My perspective is that the capacity provided by Riverside is vitally important to the overall network both north and south of the river.” This plain statement, made without the benefit of any of the analysis that has been demanded for over nine years, would taint any subsequent analysis that might be performed in less than a completely transparent manner, open to and vetted by the public. The only evidence that the Transportation Department provides to support this predisposition are a compilation of traffic counts. Without analysis, traffic counts are just numbers. Without consideration of how those numbers might change if other network adjustments were made, they tell an incomplete story of achievable conditions.
To Rob Spillar’s credit, he is willing to consider joint configuration of the street as a commuter road and events plaza. However, commuter road use would negate many of the benefits of the pedestrian-only plaza configuration and would continue to induce the danger and disruption of through traffic, particularly in those after-work hours when park use is likely to be heaviest.
The traffic counts that have been compiled by the City, and those that have been used in previous studies, nevertheless tell an interesting and compelling story, and not with the conclusion provided by the Transportation Department. Far from providing evidence that Riverside cannot be closed, they provide mounting evidence that it easily could.
Prior to the venue development, traffic counts from the year 2000 for westbound Riverside Drive through the park during evening peak hour were as follows. (All counts indicate vehicles/hour.)
- 733 from westbound Riverside east of S. First and proceeded west into the park
- 124 from northbound S. First and turning left onto Riverside
- 93 from southbound S. First and turning right onto Riverside.
- 950 vehicles per hour total
This traffic volume would be consistent with the measurements used by WHM in their Traffic Impact Analysis for the Town Lake Park Master Plan, which illustrated that the impact of closing the road completely would be negligible under the unimproved conditions existing at that time and without taking into account other mitigation possibilities.
The DAMP Study projection, which included additional demand from planned projects, the equivalent of which and more are now developed, was that 1200 vehicles per hour would use westbound Riverside during evening peak. The lack of any consideration for mitigating design allowed the projection to be used to justify retaining westbound (only) traffic on Riverside. (The greater delays that would be induced by other components of the Great Streets Plan, even if mitigated, were judged to be acceptable.)
Yet the current traffic counts show a radical reduction in the use of Riverside from those previously observed and projected levels. The DAMP study established that maintaining any eastbound through traffic induced delays to the grid by complicating signals at the South First and Lamar intersections. Moreover, according to the City’s traffic counts, westbound use of the road has declined in recent years.
- 2005 — 8713 vehicles per day
- 2007 — 7494
- 2009 — 5955
- 2011 — 5850
More significant are the counts for westbound flow during the evening peak period:
- 442 — 4:00-5:00 pm
- 526 — 5:00-6:00 pm
- 412 — 6:00-7:00 pm
Morning peak is even less, reaching only 411 at the 7:00-8:00 am peak.
This bears repeating:
- 950 vehicles per hour at p.m. peak, 2000
- 1200 projected for 2005 in 2002
- 526 now
So WHM’s preliminary study indicated that even with nearly twice the current level of traffic, “it may be feasible to remove the section of Riverside Drive between South 1st Street and Lamar Boulevard”. In their subsequent and much more thorough CORSIM modeling, redirecting 177% of current peak traffic flow would induce only 7 seconds of additional delay to a cross-river commuter.
We remind those who wish to give credence to the DAMP Study’s closure recommendation that the estimated traffic flow on which that recommendation was based is well OVER TWICE the flow now occurring.
So while reviewing the recent traffic data, we should keep in mind that the problem we are trying to solve now is much smaller than the problem we faced during the original master plan and the problem anticipated in the DAMP Study. Recent traffic counts are barely half of what they once were and are much less than half of what they were projected to be in an unmitigated scenario. The mitigating measures that were submitted for study should much more easily relieve the traffic to be diverted from Riverside than when originally proposed.
An interesting study reported in the New York Times recently pointed out a phenomenon in actual traffic behavior that is likely not revealed in current CORSIM modelling, but has a sound basis in probability, statistics, and queuing theory and in the observation of actual traffic flows. In at least half of all cases, adding a new street in a congested traffic grid probably results in longer travel times. Conversely, removing a street can result in simpler, more streamlined traffic flow with shorter travel times in the area.
Who Is Doing the Deciding?
Clearly, the City Council, which has the sole authority to decide whether Riverside should be closed, is not being given the information allowing them to do so, in spite of their demands that it be provided.
The project’s public stakeholders are not doing the deciding. Their wishes regarding Riverside have been thwarted for over 12 years despite any evidence to justify the thwarting. Real estate interests which participated fully in the public process but did not like its negotiated outcomes have been able to keep the parts of the compromises they like (e.g., the Long Center service yard) and arrange to have the parts they disliked (the Riverside closure) subverted by City staff and Council.
Is the Transportation Department doing the deciding, or are they just following orders? Their insubordination to both Council and City Manager directives does not seem the kind of thing that would come naturally and voluntarily to engineers, nor the kind of thing that would be tolerated by higher management.
One must wonder why when WHM presented the findings of their TIA, they went to such lengths to disguise the result of the delay times their modelling showed. One must wonder whose agenda Austan Librach was referring to, when he said studying Riverside was not on it. One must wonder about the names, particularly RECA’s, that were all over a proposal that bypassed the extensive master planning process to become, at the last minute, part of the Master Plan sent to City Council. One must wonder why the “acceptable compromise” proposed by the executive director of the Downtown Austin Alliance for two-lane, bidirectional traffic on Riverside through the park somehow became the fact on the ground, even after the City’s DAMP Study analysis showed it not to be the most efficient way to move traffic. One must wonder why Rob Spiller entered the current process intent on preserving this “vitally important” roadway, when his own evidence shows the street’s use has declined by almost half from a level at which it was quantitatively shown to be unnecessary. What kind of transparency allows these decisions to be made completely outside the extensive public process the City has sponsored for this park?
Who is making these decisions?
What Kind Of City Are We?
When the City of Portland, Oregon realized that their Willamette River waterfront was an asset that could be the jewel of its central city, they demolished an entire waterfront freeway so they could make it so. Now millions of locals and tourists enjoy the waterfront park, and you will hear none of them lamenting the loss of their expressway.
When the City of Austin proposed to eliminate the left turn from southbound Lamar onto eastbound Riverside, people howled like their lives would be turned upside down and their evenings wrecked. Funny thing: the change was made, and no one found real cause to complain.
When the Town Lake Park Master Plan proposed to eliminate the lightly used segement of Riverside Drive that would reduce, disrupt, and fragment its new centerpiece park and endanger its visitors, the real estate interests howled like we were out of our wits. “Many great parks have roads through them!” they argued, citing New York’s Central Park and ignoring that Central Park has eight completely roadless spaces within it that are larger than the entire Butler Park/Auditorium Shores district. Central Park, of course, would be more aptly compared to the entire Lady Bird Lake Corridor, which contains the busiest section of interstate highway in the nation, the Mopac Expressway bridge, major thoroughfare crossings at Lamar, South First, Congress, and Pleasant Valley Road, and whose parkland is further chopped by Barton Springs Road and Cesar Chavez. Those making this argument seem to think Austinites have never seen a great park, nor can we recognize that we do not have one.
We can, though, and we have the desire and the means to create one. We are the kind of community that can blend arts and recreation, civic events and civic beauty, business and fun, all day and evening and night. We can give musical and cultural opportunities to dripping wet kids. We can put both fine art and zany art in a free, public space, right in the middle of the most brilliant part of the city. We can provide a park where we can do all these things without fear of being run over by a weary or anxious commuter, ever.
This park is how we will say that.