Austin seeks to set 'unified vision' for eastern downtown through new Palm District plan

The historic Palm School building is one of several landmarks and cultural sites located within Austin's central Palm District. (Courtesy city of Austin)
The historic Palm School building is one of several landmarks and cultural sites located within Austin's central Palm District. (Courtesy city of Austin)

The historic Palm School building is one of several landmarks and cultural sites located within Austin's central Palm District. (Courtesy city of Austin)

After more than a year of preplanning and community outreach, Austin's Palm District Planning Initiative entered into its first full stage of public participation this spring as the city seeks to finalize a blueprint covering transportation, business, development and culture along the eastern quarter of downtown.

Stretching from Lady Bird Lake to 15th Street west of I-35, the Palm District is home to several historic sites, modern institutions and planning subdistricts based around Rainey and Red River streets and the Dell Seton Medical Center. The hub of downtown activity has also been included in a range of city planning over the past decade-plus, such as the Waller Creek Master Plan and Downtown Austin Plan, and beginning in 2019 was targeted for its own civic review process expected to result in the creation of a new Palm District Small Area Plan.



“The fundamental goal of the Palm District Planning Initiative is to engage stakeholders and the public to develop a shared vision for an area of downtown that has a rich history and that we know is evolving quickly," said Stevie Greathouse, the initiative's manager with the Housing and Planning Department. "We’re really hoping that this planning process will help to unify the various visions that have come out over the years behind us and come up with a unified vision that can truly figure out what this place wants to be moving forward into the future.”

During a May 24 design commission briefing on the planning program, Greathouse said the initiative is aimed at highlighting the area's cultural roots in addition to the present-day rise of new development and entertainment there. The district has long been home to a portion of Austin's Mexican-American community, and the landmark Palm School located off I-35 served as a primary school for Latino students in the wake of the city's late 1920s segregationist plan.


While the area's new blueprint will not reverse that planning outcome or the further severing of downtown and East Austin neighborhoods established through I-35's construction later in the 20th century, Greathouse said the city is taking those historic considerations into account through its ongoing Palm District initiative.

"Over the years the district has seen waves of settlement and displacement that have been reinforced by public decision making, and it’s important that we approach the planning process with an understanding of this history," she said.

Since the Palm School closed to students in the 1970s it has housed Travis County offices and has recently become the center of a disagreement between city and county over its future use. The Palm District's Latino heritage is also being incorporated into Austin's new planning initiative through the recognition of existing sites, including the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center west of Rainey Street and the creation of new markers such as a proposed Mexican-American Heritage Corridor running along Fifth Street. If designated, that cultural district could stretch between Guadalupe and Comal streets as a link between the disconnected sides of I-35.

Greathouse also said I-35's impending reconstruction will play into the Palm District's future alongside other coming transportation considerations, including the arrival of Project Connect and its four separate rail line connections planned to be centered there. While the shorter-term district initiative is unlikely to affect the state-led design of Austin's central artery, she said some city staff's work on both the Palm District and I-35 could result in shared planning on aspects of the highway redesign such as a possible cap-and-stitch between west and east sides.

The Palm District Planning Initiative recently entered its "visioning phase," which Greathouse said will be more focused on community engagement than the pre-planning that ran through last winter. Online resident feedback options opened in early May through the SpeakUp Austin portal and a project email box, and Austin is set to host its first two virtual public input sessions on the district plan in mid-June.

Additional and review phases are scheduled through early 2022 with the end goal of creating a distinct small area plan and amendments to the existing Downtown Austin Plan. With the end goal of setting a new community-driven vision for the area, Greathouse said a finalized district plan could be presented to the city planning commission and City Council by spring of next year.

"We will evaluate whether our planning effort is successful based on the extent to which it achieves community benefits in an equitable manner," she said.


MOST RECENT

The mid-June East Sixth Street shooting has prompted responses from city police, EMS and government officials. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Sixth Street fatal shooting leads to renewed discussions of public safety staffing, gun violence prevention in Austin

Increased police staffing, improved EMS availability, and state or federal action on gun violence prevention are among the proposals floated in the wake of the weekend shooting.

Plans to move forward with the design of a new Travis County women's jail have been postponed indefinitely. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Travis County pauses plans to build new women's jail

Commissioners voted unanimously to postpone any design or construction of new jail facilities for at least a year while staff re-evaluate the Travis County correctional system's needs.

Austin FC fans
Austin FC supporters groups release parade route ahead of inaugural home game

Motorists should look for pedestrians walking around near the site of Q2 Stadium ahead of Austin FC's June 19 inaugural home game.

Joseph Chacon, interim chief of the Austin Police Department, gives an update on Austin's recent move into the second phase of Proposition B camping ban enforcement June 15 alongside Homeless Strategy Officer Dianna Grey and City Manager Spencer Cronk. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin Proposition B enforcement shifts from education to warnings

Austin officials on June 15 provided an update on enforcement and outreach work by city staff and the Austin Police Department with the second phase of Proposition B camping ban enforcement now underway.

Candlewood Suites Northwest Austin
Williamson County declines lawsuit against Austin over Candlewood Suites saga—for now

Williamson County did not hold a vote to file a lawsuit against the city of Austin over the contentious Candlewood Suites property in Northwest Austin.

Photo of Chez Nous in black and white
Chez Nous, downtown Austin's longstanding French bistro, permanently closes

The restaurant opened in 1982 after its owners moved to Texas from Paris.

Photo of Moderna vaccine vials on a table
50% of Travis County residents fully vaccinated against COVID-19

Travis County has reached a milestone in COVID-19 vaccinations.

Pedestrian crossing signals
Burnet Road sidewalk improvements near Q2 Stadium expected to finish by July

City crews are working on several projects along Burnet Road that will make the corridor safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas issued a call for Texans to conserve energy June 14. (Iain Oldman/Community Impact Newspaper)
ERCOT asks Texans to conserve energy with generation outages 2.5 times higher than normal

"This is unusual for this early in the summer season," said Woody Rickerson, ERCOT vice president of grid planning and operations, in a news release.

The rezoning request for the Springdale Green Planned Unit Development passed Austin City Council 10-0 June 10. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Rezoning for East Austin's Springdale Green PUD plan passes in unanimous City Council vote

The PUD plan garnered some community resistance this spring due to concerns over how a height increase for the project's proposed office towers could affect development and resident displacement in surrounding neighborhoods.

Austin moved into its second phase of Proposition B ordinance enforcement June 13 and began working to move some campers around City Hall on June 14. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin Police Department clears tents around City Hall

The city began issuing written warnings June 13 in its second phase of enforcing criminal penalties for camping in public.