On a hot night in July 1999, Austin’s Liberty Lunch hosted what was surely a once-in-a-lifetime event: 24 straight hours of a live performance of Van Morrison’s anthem, “Gloria.” The occasion was the imminent shuttering of the club, one of the town’s most beloved, beer-soaked live music joints. The demise of Liberty Lunch was facilitated by the fact that it resided on one of four and a half city-owned blocks along Second Street in downtown for which Austin Mayor Kirk Watson had a grand plan. The blocks of waterfront property housed only the city’s permanently “temporary” council chambers and a boarded-up historic general goods store in addition to Liberty Lunch, which was little more than a glorified shed with a stage and a bar. The street was decrepit, derelict, and, in Watson’s words, “dead as a doornail.” The solution: create a new “digital district” that wrested dominion over downtown from old-economy bankers and lawyers — fuddy-duddy nine-to-fivers — to create a high-tech, digital district that would keep people downtown 24/7. Second Street would be ground zero. As if to provide the spark, the revelers at Liberty Lunch burned a photo of the mayor’s face in effigy as a last defiant gesture, branding into history the moment when Old Austin became New Austin.
This year, what is now known as the Second Street District is celebrating its 10th birthday.
The formerly wayward, bereft little road has become a lustrous mecca of music and foodie tourism, steeped beard-deep in hipness, the self-declared epitome of New Austin cool. And, like most tweens, Second Street is getting a foothold in the world, not quite all grown-up but beginning to fulfill its promise.
Now nestled among nearly a dozen hotel and residential towers (with more on the way), it is the jewel of downtown Austin and the envy of economic development councils from here to Detroit.
The Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit planning design and education group, identifies successful public spaces as containing four distinct qualities: They are sociable, accessible, comfortable, and they provide diverse activities. Second Street today, at least the stretch that covers the original three-block segment between San Antonio Street on the east and Colorado Street on the west, boasts a decent showing of these essentials. Wide, tree-lined sidewalks accommodate street cafés and restaurants that seem to always be at capacity. Small, boutique-y shops, as well as vendors catering to downtown dwellers (a dry cleaner’s, a Mac repair shop) entice a steady stream of people — conventioneers and downtowners during the week, joined on weekends by tourists, locals from the ‘burbs doing a day downtown, and Mom and Dad visiting their Longhorn. Hotels and residential towers keep people in the city, and at night ACL Live, an arthouse cinema, and award-winning eateries and bars keep things animated well into the wee hours.
But it was not always thus. Second Street was so dead, it is almost impossible to find a single photo of it from the 1990s; there was simply no reason to take one. But Watson had an idea. He credits working alongside architects with informing his vision and educating him about the way cities, streets, and buildings contribute to urban life and make great downtowns. He says that Austin needed a “living room,” where people could be together and the life of the city would continue well into the evening, as a way to attract and keep talent for a new, high-tech, digital economy. What he needed was someone to be the proverbial urban design guinea pig for this new vision.
Back then, the city had long been refereeing fights between developers and environmentalists — “aquifer politics,” in local parlance — and it is Watson who deserves credit for having the political will and audacious vision to shift development of desirable corporations away from the eco-sensitive outskirts and smack into the middle of downtown. Watson, along with Larry Speck, FAIA, of Page Southerland Page (now Page) doggedly kept after Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC), a Los Angeles-based software company, encouraging them to come downtown instead of building a campus out in the watershed. “I told them downtown is the really desired development zone,” Watson laughs. “It has 100 percent impervious cover.” It was not quite that easy and involved a lot of incentivizing and convincing from both the mayor and the architect, but CSC ultimately agreed, under one big, easy-on-paper, difficult-to-execute stipulation: Its $150 million investment had to be supported by a plan to create a district of urban life around them that would support their employees and make the risk worthwhile.
Speck recalls the extensive trial-and-error period that was required to get the mix of uses just right. “There was a whole lot of testing and feeling, and it was complicated because everybody had their own idea of what mixed-use meant,” he says. CSC was adamant that the district retain a certain dignity, and the decision was made to orient the buildings southward, to create a presence along the waterfront and a new entry to downtown from the south. Second Street frontage to the north would be developed at street level to accommodate a variety of uses — tastefully executed per CSC’s stipulation. Designed by Page, the CSC buildings created the core of a civic district, and established a palette of materials — mostly limestone — and a massing vocabulary that transitioned easily from the lakefront into the urban core. A new city hall, designed by Antoine Predock with Cotera Reed, was planned for a site between the two buildings behind an open plaza, to be paid for with money from the CSC leases.
This vision of a civic and retail district was informed and enriched by another grand plan that was running on a parallel track — that of the Great Streets Master Plan. Conceived by Black & Vernooy + Kinney (with Donna Carter, FAIA, Lars Stanley, FAIA, Eleanor McKinney, Jose Martinez, and Charles Thompson, FAIA), the plan was the realization of a street-level vision architect Sinclair Black had been championing in his roles as advocate and longtime member of the Austin Downtown Alliance. He worked closely with Jana McCann, FAIA, then the City’s urban design officer, who managed the program, bringing her own experience as an architect and urban planner in Europe to the work. Building on an earlier conceptual street plan completed for the city by Roma Design Group, the master plan developed prototype streetscapes for the 300 blocks of downtown Austin that delineated six prototypes of street environments.
As part of the master plan, Second Street became the embodiment and the test case of the Great Streets idea. Informed in large measure by the work of Allan Jacobs, whose 1995 book “Great Streets” served as inspiration and impetus for Black’s work, the plan set the stage for a communal downtown space, rich with amenities and social offerings. Black recalls that a lot of thinking went into unseen and unglamorous details of how streets work. “We did a lot of research into things like converting one-way back to two way and what that meant for the sidewalks as well as the economy,” he says. “And then we developed the standards.” The master plan also outlined street amenities like light fixtures, signage and wayfinding, pavers and public art, with a view to creating a cohesive and authentic design.
The effort was underpinned by a recent design commission guideline that declared downtown streets give priority to pedestrians first, transit second, and bicycles third. “Cars had to fend for themselves,” Black says. To understand the complete U-turn that these guidelines represented, a typical Austin downtown street has an 80-ft right-of-way, of which 60 ft were traditionally dedicated to cars. The Great Streets plan dedicates 36 ft of the right-of-way to pedestrians, reducing the cars’ space to only 44 ft. On Second Street, the ratio favors pedestrians even more, boasting 32-ft sidewalks on the north side, in a gesture that accommodates street seating for restaurants and responds to the shadow cast by the CSC (now Silicon Labs) buildings to the south.
It was the first Amli Downtown project (designed by Sinclair Black with Page as architect of record) that gave hints about the big idea of how the district would unfold beyond the CSC and City Hall buildings. Located on the block northeast of City Hall, it boasted a street level café with open-air seating, with residences above. “When that first block opened, everybody got the message,” Black says. Design Within Reach became a seminal tenant and the retail anchor the district needed. Block 21, the brownfield site directly north of City Hall, became the W Hotel and Residences tower, along with the ACL Live music venue (Andersson-Wise and BOKA Powell), which at its opening in 2010 was the largest LEED-certified mixed-use development in the country. At the far west end, another AMLI block (Page) added more retail and residential space, and Watson’s six-block living room was complete.
According to the City of Austin, in 2010, that six-block core generated $4.55 million in property taxes, before the $300 million W Hotel and Residences opened late that year. That same year — an economically down year, to say the least — the district also produced $2.29 million in sales taxes. The City of Austin also says the district added $1.032 billion to the tax base in 2014, the most recent numbers it can provide (presumably, the city is too busy counting its receipts to stop and update the numbers). Not a bad return on an initial public investment of $8 million.
The Second Street corridor is expanding further, “doing what it’s supposed to do,” says Watson. In addition to extruding northward into Third Street and into Republic Square Park, which hosts a large farmers’ market/street party every weekend, the corridor will soon connect the Seaholm District on the west directly with the Austin Convention Center and a new programmed park along Waller Creek on the east. For the first time, a large swath of downtown will be physically connected and will coexist in the same mental space. It will be possible to walk from Seaholm, past the new Central Library (Lake|Flato and Shepley Bullfinch) at the western end, across the new pedestrian bridge at Shoal Creek, all the way across Congress and past the JW Marriott, to the convention center. At Shoal Creek you could make a detour to the hike and bike trail along Lady Bird Lake or enjoy the pocket park planned between the library and the adjacent Northshore 38-floor mixed-use development. At Waller Creek on the east, you might soon be able to turn south and access a pedestrian bridge across the lake to the south shore (where more mixed-use development is planned) or turn north and work your way to the University of Texas at Austin campus and its new Dell Medical School. It is the next evolution of downtown that is bringing new thinking to how we use and share community space. Peter Mullan, Chief Executive Officer of the Waller Creek Conservancy and veteran of New York’s High Line, recognizes the potential that is bubbling to the surface. “Second Street cracked open the door on the possibility of a more robust and diverse urbanism in Austin, he says. “Barriers to entry to doing mixed use projects have been sufficiently lowered that it will only continue.” And, in a city plagued by traffic of biblical proportions, it is worth mentioning that Second Street provides an essential east-west artery for active commuting — biking, walking — that cities tout as desirable amenities for enticing people to move downtown, preferably without a car (as one proposed development is advertising).
As any visitor to the city can attest, Austinites love Austin, and for decades Barton Springs, Deep Eddy, Zilker Park, and even the lore of lost places like the Armadillo World Headquarters and Liberty Lunch told of happy common meeting grounds for rednecks and hippies, academics and lawyers — “the boots and the suits,” as Watson says. The Willie Nelson statue on the corner of Second and Lavaca summons that soul of Austin, now packaged in a new incarnation that is a little more self-referential and polished, with $20 burgers and artisanal beer. But Second Street’s realization and its influence on the fabric of Austin in just ten years is a testament to political will and architectural vision combining forces with an unblinking focus on a specific mission. “The idea that great cities grow organically is a myth,” Speck says. “Nothing will ever coalesce. You need urban design to do it.” And Black agrees. “People say it would have happened anyway. But would it have been that fast, or been that robust? Because for the 85 years before the street was redone, nothing happened.”
Canan Yetmen is a writer based in Austin.