Austin residents turned out May 23 to listen and give feedback on a plan to transform Central Avenue from a largely undistinguished residential corridor into a north-south connector promoting existing cultural landmarks and functioning more as Austin’s “Main Street.”
Gathered under the auspices of Austin Coming Together (ACT), real estate and land use experts from Chicago’s Urban Land Institute (ULI) came to the Kehrein Center for the Arts, 5628 W. Washington Blvd. Also participating in the planning process were representatives of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), which has been working with ACT for several months.
Reinvigorating Central Avenue is one of the major priorities outlined in the ACT coalition’s Austin Quality of Life Plan. The thinking is that Central Avenue could link Austin’s major West-East commercial corridors to cultural institutions such as the Austin Town Hall Fieldhouse, 5610 W. Lake St., and the Austin branch library, 5615 W. Race Ave., and transportation amenities such as the Central/Lake Green Line ‘L’ station, serving as the neighborhood’s “Main Street.” It would be a model similar to Western Avenue in the South Side’s Beverly neighborhood and Cermak Road in Little Village.
Some of the major highlights suggested May 23 included using public art to bring more attention to existing neighborhood assets, improving lighting at the CTA/Metra embankment underpasses, creating more job training programs and looking into reopening the Central Avenue Blue Line ‘L’ station. Some residents expressed concerns that the plan doesn’t do enough to prevent displacement, create job opportunities or address parking issues. The panelists said they would take the feedback into account as they prepare the final version of the recommendations.
Kemena Brooks, chair of the 12-member ULI technical assistance panel, said they were asked to look at the section of Central Avenue between Chicago Avenue and Madison Street. The panel met with business owners, residents and community stakeholders to find out how they feel about Central Avenue and what they would like to see along the corridor.
The major takeaway, Brooks said, was there weren’t many places for people to “hang out and do things,” no coffee shops and restaurants and a shortage of grocery stores and banks. They felt the railroad embankment between Lake Street and Corcoran Place, which has carried CTA and Union Pacific Railroad tracks since the early 1960s, is a barrier, and they felt that the Central Avenue viaduct, is dimly lit and unfriendly. While Central Avenue has sidewalks, Austinites felt that “it’s not as walkable as it could be.”
The residents the panel spoke to wanted to do something to shore up the housing stock along Central Avenue and ensure that any new development wouldn’t price out the long-time residents. They wanted opportunities for people to learn skills that would translate into decent paying jobs. They wanted to address safety concerns, both real and perceived, and they wanted marketing efforts to help draw attention to community events and “overcome” negative perceptions of Austin.
Panel member Meejay Gula then outlined the recommendations for the corridor.
To improve connectivity, the panel recommended implementing traffic calming measures such as curb bump-outs, which reduce the distance pedestrians have to cross and create natural barriers in the parking lanes to reduce speeding. They called for “improving the pedestrian experience” under the CTA/Metra viaduct through art and improved lighting.
The viaduct currently has murals painted in 2007 by students from the After School Matters program under the direction of artist Rahmaan Barnes. But the murals have since deteriorated. While Alds. Chris Taliaferro (29th) and Emma Mitts (37th) agreed to co-fund the mural rehab, Taliaferro told Austin Weekly News the project is currently being reviewed by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), and he hasn’t heard much from them since the spring of 2022.
The panel also recommended adding Divvy bike-sharing stations and rental electric scooters. And, while it’s outside the scope of their study area, Gula said they’re recommending reopening the Central Blue Line el station, near the Eisenhower Expressway, at 720 S. Central Ave., which has been closed since 1973.
The panel made no mention of the CTA bus route 85/Central, which serves most of the corridor and where off-peak service frequency can drop down to as much as 20 minutes.
Gula said many Austinites the panel spoke to felt that Austin already had many cultural assets – they just need to be promoted and used more.
“What we recognized from meeting many community members, is that Austin doesn’t need to be rebranded at all, that Austin already has a thriving, beautiful culture,” she said. “But what we were missing is that connection.”
The panel recommended putting in wayfinding signs to help guide visitors to cultural and historic sites, use lighting and landscaping to bring more attention to the Town Hall Fieldhouse and add more public art. They recommended closing off sections of Lake Street and Corcoran Place closer to Central Avenue for public events and “activate” vacant land and underutilized sites. The presentation specifically mentioned the Corcoran Grocery store, 5601 W. Corcoran Pl., which has been closed since a spring 2017 shooting, suggesting turning it into a culinary facility, a coffee shop or a co-working space.
To improve job skills, the panel recommended taking advantage of existing nearby schools, Westside Health Authority’s future Aspire Center, which is currently being built-out inside the former Emmet School building, and industrial corridors on the south, north and east sides of the Austin community.
To preserve affordability on Central Avenue, the panel recommended helping homeowners apply for tax breaks, using TIF and/or other funding resources to help homeowners make repairs, and encouraging and supporting garden apartments and multi-flat units.
Panel member Manny Flores, the former 1st Ward alderman, emphasized what they presented were initial recommendations, and that they would take anything they heard from the attendees into account.
“We’re also here to gather additional information, important viewpoints from the community,” he said.
Attorney Mecca Thompson said she was leery of TIF funding since it tends to lead to property tax increases and could trigger displacement.
“The [2023 mayoral election] was a very close election,” she said. ‘What you do now could very well determine who could be the next mayor [in 2027]. This is very serious, what you’re doing.”
Brooks said they’re mindful of the displacement concerns.
“That’s the conversation that comes up quite often — how do we make sure [what we recommend] is for the residents, legacy residents?” she said.
Former Austinite Marquell Smith, who currently lives in West Garfield Park, said he wanted the plan to provide jobs with living wages. Another resident argued the plan doesn’t give enough attention to street parking.
Diana Graham, who has lived in Austin since 1969, said that, while she had concerns about the TIF’s impact, she liked the panel’s recommendations overall.
“I welcome everybody that you bring to our neighborhood, I love it,” she said. “If you need me to work on anything, anything, I will be there.”