Retail Therapy

A glimpse into the future of the Seaholm District’s connection with the 2nd Street District and how planners hope to preserve local culture as the area grows — plus, what it all means for downtown parking.

It all started in the year 2000. For downtown Austin, the turn of the millennium brought with it a determination for a district renewed: a downtown core full of vibrant life, where residents could live, work, and play.

a downtown core full of vibrant life, where residents could live, work, and play

Nearly 15 years later, downtown has seen an incredible transformation and is slowly turning itself into the city hub planners dreamed of.

But it’s Austin’s 2nd Street District that warrants special attention.

During initial planning for downtown’s redevelopment, 2nd Street was suggested as the pedestrian spine of the area — a role that the formerly unassuming street has played quite well in recent years. As the fastest growing retail area in Austin, the 2nd Street District put downtown on the city’s shopping map, and has turned an area once dedicated solely to government and resources for the homeless into a bustling dining and entertainment destination with the addition of Violet Crown Cinema, ACL Live at the Moody Theater, and a host of restaurants and cafes, including local paragons like Austin Java, Jo’s and Lamberts. While shopping has had its ups and downs – planners note the difficulty in getting shoppers into storefronts on adjoining streets, for example, and cite a perceived lack of parking as the reason for low foot traffic and high turnover especially on the Cesar Chavez side of those buildings – it’s certainly come a long way from what it was in the early aughts.

Much of the district’s early redevelopment can be credited to AMLI, which was brought on near the project’s start to manage the vertical mixed-use spaces. According to Fred Evins, a redevelopment project manager for City of Austin, AMLI was able to provide a level of retail knowledge and experience that the City lacked. “We had a vision and we knew our goal, but we were not retail developers,” Evins says. According to him, this, along with AMLI’s willingness to jump into an untested market, is what made it an ideal partner in creating a version of 2nd Street that’s been able to support a variety of tenants.

Wandering around the district, pedestrians find a combination of local favorites and national retailers – a mix that’s more by design than accident. A closer look unveils an area representative of the retail mentality of greater Austin, in that it continues to showcase the little guys that epitomize the Austin we know and love while still making room for the big names that help bring people in.

City planners, however, felt it was important for the area to maintain an Austin vibe despite the rapid retail growth, and thus required an occupancy level of at least 30 percent local tenants to preserve that culture.

By creating spaces that lent themselves to boutiques and small local shops, the city’s retail partners easily exceeded the 30 percent requirement and created a district that is now home to as many local favorites (Royal Blue Grocery, Eliza Page, Toy Joy) as national brand names (Urban Outfitters, Swatch, Loft). AMLI even grants temporary use of their storefronts to non-profits and local artists’ pop-up shops on occasion – a gesture meant to support local culture as much as to avoid vacancies.

Today, the growing success of the 2nd Street District is encouraging the continued growth of retail spaces downtown, and developers have decided to expand the shopping area into the renovated Seaholm District. Though not an expansion of the 2nd Street District per se, the two areas will be connected by the expansion of West Ave. as well as a pedestrian bridge. Estimated to be completed by 2018, these two additional blocks of storefronts will create 193,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space for vendors, giving the city even more opportunity to turn downtown into an interconnected hub.

With this growth, however, a new set of challenges arises. Namely, the city must address how this new downtown destination will affect the area’s parking, especially considering that Austinites currently believe there to be a shortage of space.

According to Evins, the city actually has more parking than people realize, though it can be a challenge to find. To address the issue, planners are looking into implementing a dynamic signage program, similar to what Whole Foods shoppers experience in the grocer’s parking garage at 5th and Lamar. This system, which will be implemented throughout the entirety of downtown, uses electronic displays to direct drivers to available lots nearby.

Come 2018, if all goes to plan, we may see a downtown reinvigorated

To further assuage consumers’ parking woes, the newly renovated Seaholm District will have 315 new public parking spots in addition to the 200 spots that will be available in the new Central Library, providing a wealth of visible parking that can seem absent in the current city design.

Though a seemingly minor addition to the redevelopment plan, these parking solutions solve an important concern that comes with a growing downtown destination – easy access for all. In order for the City to meet its initial goals, that access is essential.

City of Austin’s redevelopment division manager, Peter Zeiler, says that the purpose behind the entire redevelopment plan is to create an area that is accommodating of Austin’s growth and gives residents an urban destination to enjoy. “It all comes down to providing access to reasonable choices and improving the [downtown] streetscapes so there is activity that makes you want to be out on the street in 100 plus degree weather.”

To him and other city planners, redevelopments that support downtown living can reduce pressure on sprawl, alleviate residents’ dependencies on cars, and create a more enjoyable city overall.

Come 2018, if all goes to plan, we may see a downtown reinvigorated — a treasured local destination that started out with just a few storefronts and an ambitious plan all those years ago.

Writing: Rachael Genson – @rmgenson@rmgenson
Images provided by City of Austin


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