The Palm District: Austin’s Cultural Hub

By Paola Capo posted 7 days ago

This summer, the AIA Communities by Design hosted its first ever virtual Design Assistance Team in the city of Austin, specifically the Palm District in downtown Austin. Below, find a summary of the process and the outcomes of the process. You can read the full report here

Project Background and Process

Due to the ongoing COVID pandemic, the city of Austin decided to move forward with a virtual SDAT, a format. The process was scheduled to complement and learn from the city’s ongoing planning process for the Palm District. Given that the national team would not physically visit the city, imposing necessary restrictions on its ability to design or analyze beyond broad parameters, the scope was narrowed to four themes, captured below as articulated by the local project committee: 
  • Equitable transit oriented development
  • Affordability and cultural resources
  • Urban design and land use regulations
  • Connecting social equity to environmental sustainability

In June 2021, the city’s official planning process for the Palm District kicked off with a public survey and a series of virtual public workshops hosted by the city on June 15th and 16th. AIA team members were able to join and listen to the workshop discussions, as well as review the survey findings to inform our work concerning public priorities and aspirations for the future of the Palm District. The team also spent time talking to key stakeholders about the community's key issues. 

Key recommendations
This is a pivotal, defining moment for the city. The Palm District can develop into a glorious demonstration of what it means to be an Austinite, or another cautionary tale about what could have been. It is critical to focus on putting plans into action to create positive change in the Palm District.

Preserving history and sustaining culture
  • Create a gateway to the Palm District that highlights the Mexican American heritage 
  • Consider public art murals with an emphasis on the Latino history and culture in the area
  • Tell the story of the Mexican American Experience through plaques and other "exhibits" on the streets
  • Conserve the Palm School and Park and tell it's story. Consider reuse opportunities such as a community center or a culture hub. 
  • Protect historic and cultural assets threatened in East Austin. 
  • Create a Mexican American Heritage Tourism program

Real Estate Analysis
  • Make affordable housing an important part of creating an equitable Palm District. 
  • Work with the county, state, and NGOs to address homelessness across the city and region
  • Consider new affordable housing strategies, such as creating a community land trust or phasing out the density bonus in-lieu fee.
  • Transform the Police Station site into affordable housing (with TOD potential)
  • Commit to best practices in development implementation (St John Developer Solicitation is a good example)

Strategic Considerations 
  • Give the innovation district a board, staff, and budget so it can deliver on services
  • Increase protection of Red River Cultural District to ensure it doesn't disappear
  • On the Waterloo Greenway, focus on abutting properties. Also move from planning and development towards maintenance and programming the area.
  • Invest in street-friendliness around the convention center, similar to Central Library project
  • In the long term (30 year project), stitch and cover IH-35 to knit together the divided city, making sure to have full time attention on it and protect East Austin from overdevelopment. 

Read the full report here.
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