Among those aiming to revitalize the downtown attraction is Stream Realty Partners, which bought more than 40 parcels on East Sixth between Congress Avenue and I-35 that are now occupied by bars, tattoo parlors and vacant storefronts. The firm plans to repurpose several of the district’s historic structures to pave the way for restaurants, offices, music venues and a hotel.
“The best course forward is just being a place that is really rooted in Austin, and that anybody who comes in town or anybody who lives here, when they think of Austin, they think of Sixth Street,” said Caitlyn Ryan, Stream’s vice president of development and investment and lead on the project. “It used to be that way, and now not so much. But we’re just trying to bring that back.”
Stream is awaiting key decisions at City Hall that would clear the way for its yearslong redevelopment plans.
A safer Sixth
Around 1:24 a.m. on June 12, 2021, gunfire rang out on the 400 block of East Sixth and sent late-night visitors scrambling for safety. More than a dozen people were hurt and one man, 25-year-old Douglas Kantor, died from his injuries June 13.
The shooting helped prompt Austin’s Safer Sixth Street initiative, a collaboration between the city departments and businesses aimed at improving the safety and usage of the district.
Since then, violent incidents have continued to contribute to the district’s reputation. The Austin Police Department most recently reported a homicide there Aug. 16, which followed other killings in April and January.
During safety discussions, city officials labeled the area as “unsafe and volatile” and home to “fighting and alcohol-fueled violence.” Since launching last July, the Safer Sixth initiative has focused several city departments, including the Austin Police Department, on bringing change to East Sixth.
APD Public Information Manager Brandon Jones said challenges along Sixth range from large-scale crowd management to addressing inter-personal conflicts as an estimated 20,000-30,000 people flow through the area on typical weekend nights.
“We do our best to staff this area with the appropriate number of officers to respond to issues safely and effectively,” Jones said.
While public safety operations may be most visible for visitors, Safer Sixth is also tied to the corridor’s layout. Entertainment Services Manager Brian Block has said an improved streetscape for pedestrians and a more diverse mix of businesses lining the street could help encourage nightlife activities beyond “just drinking.”
The city also plans to launch a pilot program allowing businesses to set up sidewalk seating on weekends and is considering a support program for bar operators with a record of addressing emergency situations.
“Bar/venue operators have been supportive of maximizing the vitality and safety of Sixth Street and are collaborating with city staff to determine the best ways to accomplish that,” said Tara Long, public information specialist with Austin’s Development Services Department, in an email.
Over the past several years, Stream acquired dozens of mostly vacant storefronts and pieces of land along East Sixth with a goal of transforming the “stagnant” district, Ryan said.
Stream’s vision is evolving, but Ryan said she hopes to see the area become an “18-hour street” frequented by diners, shoppers, families and workers—all while maintaining existing establishments.
“Sixth Street doesn’t have a bar problem; it has a ratio problem,” she said. “What we’re trying to do is highlight the history of it and then make that ratio a little bit more even.”
That vision was shared by District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, who in June proposed a city code update that would allow for increased height on some Stream properties. The firm said that move is needed to unlock some redevelopment potential for a shift into a more accessible arts and tourism hub.
“I remember distinctly the moment where I decided it was not OK to bring my children downtown after dark, and I’d like for us to fix that,” she said. “With all kinds of businesses that activate the street day and night, we are more inclined to get closer to meeting that goal.”
Between Neches and Sabine streets, Stream is considering the addition of a multistory hotel and office building that could rise up to 10 stories. And at the block’s edge along I-35, more live music space could be coming to a parcel now home to a parking lot. Team members also said they hope those plans can be timed with upcoming improvements to Waller Creek, part of the Waterloo Greenway restoration continuing through the 2020s. Altogether, the work is aimed at drawing a wider variety of visitors to a more lively corridor.
“Everything that we’ve talked about in uses and experience of this district is about dinner and a show, or meeting for lunch, and activation of the street,” said Paul Clayton, principal at the architecture firm Clayton Korte partnering with Stream.
Preservation, pushing forward
While modern development in some of Austin’s other historic districts has come at the expense of older buildings there, Stream representatives committed to designs focused on maintaining the block’s history.
In early Austin, Sixth—originally Pecan Street—and the neighboring Congress represented the “only streets of consequence” in the city, according to the district’s listing in the National Register of Historic Places. And eventually, the Pecan commercial hub’s ethnic diversity became “one of its most striking characteristics.” But despite its goal of preservation, the development team also highlighted the issue of historic context and another piece of history in line to be scrapped.
“Dirty Sixth,” a nickname many now associate with the area’s violence and chaotic drinking culture, is one Stream intends to move away from. Ryan said the name had a racist origin, as local minority-owned businesses earned a derogatory label from others in town over time.
“We want to push very strongly to change that moniker, because I don’t think a lot of people understand when they use it what the original reference point was,” Ryan said. “We thought it was of very, very high importance to rebrand this district to honor what was there and not so much disrespect.”
Before Stream moves forward, the height allowance and a separate measure tied to the creation of a new local historic district there must be resolved by city officials. For now, Ryan said Stream’s team is refining its outline and considering the array of input received since the plans were publicly detailed.
“I foresee that people are going to be down there from 8 in the morning until 2 a.m. at night, and we’re going to find a great way of taking this street and allowing it to have as many uses that we can possibly have that are rooted in Austin,” Ryan said.