Commentary: Capitol complex project creates opportunities for Austin

The lonely stretch of Congress Avenue between the Texas Capitol and the University of Texas offers very little to entice anyone — unless, of course, you enjoy a good Railroad Commission hearing.

But that area could become something very different: a vibrant, tree-lined civic space that is open to everyone. As laid out in the state’s Capitol Complex Master Plan, the new Texas Mall is envisioned to be a distinct destination located in the heart of Austin and designed to host outdoor music performances, political rallies, the Texas Book Festival and other community events.

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As members of the joint legislative committee that oversaw the development of the Capitol Complex Master Plan, we’re excited about this future. The transformation of this little-used area of North Congress Avenue will greatly benefit both the state and Austin and will allow Austinites, in particular, the opportunity to enjoy their Capitol in a wonderful new way.

We’ve already overcome the biggest hurdle. The Texas Legislature has committed $581 million for Phase 1 of the Master Plan, which includes the Texas Mall, two additional state office buildings, underground parking, infrastructure upgrades and the relocation of underground utilities.

On the north end of the avenue, the plan calls for a public plaza to tie together the Blanton Museum of Art, the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum and a yet-to-be-determined cultural venue (with a ground floor café) in the new office building at Congress Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard. Outside, the plaza includes a small amphitheater and pavilion for live performances.

Heading south, three blocks of asphalt will be replaced by green, pedestrian-friendly streetscapes featuring native trees and grasses and open to the public. A later phase of the Master Plan extends the green space all the way to 15th Street, creating a four-acre park for all to enjoy.

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For state employees, the new office buildings offer much more than a place to work. They’ll have access to a larger child care facility, which should reduce the two-year wait list at the current child care center, as well as an on-site locker room. Right now, the lack of shower facilities precludes a lot of state employees from walking or biking to work.

Finally, underneath it all will be over 4,000 parking spaces available to state employees as well as the general public. This hidden garage could help alleviate parking issues in Austin’s downtown during evening and weekend events.

The city of Austin, however, will have to give a little first. Austin is being asked to vacate this four-block span of street for the Texas Mall, waive fees and streamline the permitting process for the project.

As a practical matter, it doesn’t cost the city anything. No money needs to be spent for this great new urban green space and needed parking. This isn’t land the city will ever monetize either by developing it or selling it — the city isn’t going to build a building on Congress Avenue or, for that matter, sell the street. This is a reasonable request by the state given the public amenities that we’ll all be able to enjoy.

But some on the Austin City Council aren’t in a giving mood when it comes to the state these days. They see this project as an opportunity to get some leverage over the state, to get something else they might want.

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Of course, we get it. It’s been a bruising year for all of us as state officials have repeatedly taken shots at our hometown and tried to undermine the ability of locally elected officials to govern. In turn, we spent countless hours in the Capitol defending Austin.

If we can set aside the politics and hard feelings, we might be able to forge a partnership that will create something wonderful for our community. There are a lot of things about which the city and state don’t see eye-to-eye, but the transformation of the Capitol Complex shouldn’t be one of them.

This commentary was published by TribTalk.

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