The city of Austin's "visioning" phase for the development of a Palm District Small Area Plan is moving ahead through its first round of community engagement, as the city seeks to solidify a framework for land use, development, transportation and cultural preservation throughout eastern downtown.

The Palm District, largely located south of 15th Street between Trinity Street and I-35, was tapped by City Council in May 2019 as an area in need of a new master plan to accompany past outlines such as the Downtown Austin Plan and Waller Creek Master Plan. Council at that time had tied the area to the Austin Convention Center's expansion, Rainey Street preservation efforts, negotiations surrounding the Palm School building's future, and other development and cultural priorities.

Two years later, the Palm District Planning Initiative is officially underway following the launch of an online community feedback portal and two virtual public meetings on the district plan. City staff on June 15 and 16 hosted a pair of sessions for residents and local stakeholders to voice their hopes and concerns surrounding the area and its future to guide the drafting of a shared vision for the district.

“The Palm District Planning Initiative provides an exciting opportunity to plan for a portion of downtown Austin with a rich history and many transformative improvements on the horizon. This planning process will also be able to build on the many existing strengths of the area including stakeholders and partners ... who care passionately about the area's future," Project Manager Stevie Greathouse said. "Through this effort we hope to develop a vision to support this district to become a truly remarkable place, and that future Austinites who come to the district will find that it offers the best of Austin.”

Resident priorities raised during the June 16 meeting included the preservation and promotion of the Palm District's cultural heritage, improving connectivity between downtown and East Austin, restoring local green spaces, and aiming for affordability among the businesses and residences that could populate the district in the future.

"To me, there’s a cultural significance and also a historical significance, and I see those two as very intertwined. So I would just really urge that any development that happens in that regard respects that history, respects that culture that was there first before a lot of the development came in. And if there’s a way to preserve some of that history, I would love to see that happen," said Pat Buchta, executive director of the nonprofit Austin Texas Musicians.

Discussion of the Palm District's cultural significance was particularly centered on Austin's Mexican-American community. Residents and staff both noted the displacement that Austin city policy had historically affected the area, both through segregationist zoning and planning in the early 1900s and the later construction of I-35 that physically separated culturally diverse East Austin from downtown.

“The history is that at one time, the Hispanics, specifically the Mexican-Americans, were pushed to that area and that’s where they lived up and down that area. But when they wanted them to move further east they pushed them further east," said Maria Solis, president of the Tejano Genealogy Society of Austin. "That used to be a Mexican-American area where they hung out, and it just seems that as we built on this project, we’re not honoring that history that they were forced into that area, and then they were forced further east after they had made their home in that area."

Solis and others also zeroed in on one of the district's landmarks, the historic Palm School, as a site that could be remade as a marker of that past. The building had historically served as an educational hub for the city's Mexican-Americans prior to Travis County's purchase of the property in the mid-1980s for use as office space. Several speakers during the June 16 session suggested renovating the building as a cultural museum that could highlight the area's past and previous residents.

The Palm District is already home to the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, and the city has proposed establishing a new Mexican-American heritage corridor between downtown and East Austin on Fifth Street as well. Whatever those final plans resemble, participants in the meeting were adamant that the Palm District's new area plan should build on the cultural sites already present to more extensively highlight what came before.

“People mentioned some really great things about this Palm District, but for me, I’m sorry, but I can’t appreciate it because it totally destroyed my childhood neighborhood and it’s really sad for me," said Anita Quintanilla, a former Palm School student and Rainey Street resident. "Since that area was Mexican and Mexican-American, I think there should be some way of displaying that and showing that.”

Other comments shared during the session included a desire to see the Austin Police Department's headquarters relocated away from its current position of prominence along I-35, and improvements to the adjacent Waller Creek and its walking trail. Juan Cotera, co-founder of Cotera+Reed Architects, likened the APD building to a "guard tower" giving downtown a "terrible" image, and several participants noted the potential for improved landscaping next to APD and along the creek's entire downtown greenbelt trail.

"I’ve been here for 30 years and Waller Creek has always looked like a disaster to me," said Andrew Tubbs, a downtown property owner. "It’s looking better with what they’re doing with the Waterloo amphitheater, but as you come downtown around Sixth Street and Fifth Street and through there, I think we could do a lot better for our city by making that more attractive."

Residents, including Tubbs, also commented on their hopes that the "barricade" effect of I-35 can soon be reduced through additional east-west connectivity efforts at the city level or the state's reconstruction of the highway through downtown Austin. Final plans on whether that Texas Department of Transportation project will see the interstate lowered have yet to be finalized, although several commenters said they support a cap-and-stitch or buried highway to facilitate the improvement of public spaces and pedestrian access.

“Having spent my last 50 years going through watching Austin start with very good efforts like this and ending up with nothing, I’m really worried about it, that it’s not going to happen. And we’ve got to break that barrier," Cotera said. "We have to do away with I-35 and we have to provide an easy crossing.”

Following the June public meetings, feedback on the Palm District Planning Initiative remains open via Austin's project website where residents can place comments on an interactive map of the district and respond to a survey covering priorities for the plan.

Greathouse said additional community engagement opportunities will be held over the months ahead, and the city aims to compile a summary of participation and a draft district plan later this summer. A final draft is expected to be produced by next spring for review by the planning commission and final approval by City Council.