March 9, 2017
Community Impact Newspaper
By Marie Albiges
On an average Saturday night in the Rainey Street district, a pedestrian crosses the intersection of Rainey and Davis streets every three seconds between 9:30 p.m. and 2 a.m.
Google Maps shows during those hours, Rainey Street is in the red zone—meaning traffic is moving slow—while the main thoroughfares, including I-35 and Cesar Chavez Street, are in the green.
During a busy weekend night, cars are often stopped along Rainey Street, either looking for parking or passengers to pick up, and people walking in and out of the bars aren’t sure where they are supposed to walk, given there aren’t any marked crosswalks.
Those are the findings collected by Big Red Dog Engineering—hired by the Rainey area residents and paid for by developer The Sutton Co., which has numerous residential and mixed-use projects planned for the area—to get an idea of what needs to be done in the Rainey area to improve traffic, congestion and pedestrian safety.
“We’ve done 90 percent of the work at this point, and what we want to know is, did we do what you wanted us to do?” said Dan Hennessey, the director of transportation and traffic services for the engineering firm, at a community meeting Wednesday.
The firm told a crowd of more than 50 people—including residents from The Shore Condominiums, The Villas on Town Lake and Towers of Town Lake—that pedestrian safety and connectivity were collectively the top concerns for the 130 people who responded to a survey asking them how, when and how often they traveled in and out of the neighborhood.
Hennessey said more crosswalks, complete sidewalks and street tables—similar to speed humps, but longer and flat-topped—were needed to address that concern.
Meeting attendees also seemed interested in Big Red Dog Engineering’s proposal to eliminate some parking in exchange for passenger and delivery drop-off and pick-up areas, he said, as well as adding wayfinding signs to indicate parking and creating additional connections in and out of the neighborhood.
Currently, the only north-to-south access into the Rainey area is through Red River Street, which connects to Cesar Chavez Street. That entranceway is complicated by the ongoing construction of The Fairmont Austin across the street.
Big Red Dog Engineering suggests extending Rainey Street, which currently stops at the intersection of Red River Street and becomes the parking lot just west of IHOP, to Cesar Chavez Street, providing drivers another north-south entrance into the neighborhood.
Hennessey said the city of Austin already contemplated doing this, but no plans were ever finalized to pursue the idea.
Other proposed road extensions include connecting Red River Street to River Street by building a road through the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican-American Cultural Center; building a bridge over Waller Creek to connect Davis Street to Trinity Street; and connecting Rainey Street to Cesar Chavez Street through six points along I-35, an idea Hennessey said the Texas Department of Transportation would likely not pursue.
While some neighbors called for widening the neighborhood streets or adding lanes within the neighborhood, Hennessey said that would only encourage more congestion and cut-through traffic.
“By building additional capacity for cars, we are incentivizing people being in the neighborhood when they don’t need to be,” he said.
Still, residents expressed concern over the additional traffic anticipated to come from some of the new and proposed construction in the neighborhood, including mixed-use development Waller Park Place, the 70 Rainey condominiums, the 48 East residences, a Homewood Suites hotel, and the Cambria hotel.
“It’s going to be a hard battle to stop development,” he said. “It’s a really hard argument to make that [developers] shouldn’t build anything.” Hennessey said the best solution would be to improve the connections in and out of the neighborhood.
The traffic study comes following an October agreement between The Sutton Co. and Rainey Street residents. Per the agreement, Austin City Council voted to lift a restriction on the number of allowable units for the Sutton Co.’s planned high-rise residential complex to be built in place of the Villas on Town Lake.
Hennessey said the city of Austin has no outlined plan for the future of the Rainey area, which is a city-designated historic district.
“The city doesn’t have any documentation on what you need, what you want,” he told attendees, adding his firm’s report would provide that information.
Big Red Dog Engineering will take its report to city staff for vetting and will begin looking at cost estimates for the recommendations. Another community meeting will be held sometime next month to build a strategy for implementing solutions.