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SXSW 2018 highlights: how to do downtown like a local

A walking tour educates visitors and Austinites alike

Participants on the “Experience Downtown Like a Local” tour

Visitors from Brazil, Belgium, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., Washington, D.C. and other rad cities (including Austin) had an opportunity to visit some of the public parks and spaces that are transforming the city (and eat some delicious breakfast tacos in the process) during this year’s SXSW.

Hosted by the Downtown Austin Alliance, “Experience Downtown Like a Local” walking tours on Monday and Tuesday were part of the SXSW Cities Summit, which “brought together civic leaders, citizens, and urban advocates to discuss how to create more equitable, resilient, and livable cities,” said Melissa Barry, vice-president of planning at the Downtown Austin Alliance.

“We took inspiration from the ideas presented in the [SXSW] Reimagining the Civic Commons panel that healthy and thriving civic commons—the parks, streets, libraries, schoolyards, and community centers—are critical for a vital and inclusive city,” said Barry. “The Downtown Alliance incorporated Austin’s civic commons into the tours, not only because they are part of Austin’s unique history and growing downtown landscape, but also to show the work we are doing in our own city and the many experts involved in the process.”

Jim Ritts greets tour participants at the Four Seasons
Photo by Michael Knox, courtesy of the Downtown Austin Alliance.

The tour was open to festival participants and nonparticipants alike and was led by Jim Ritts, CEO and executive director of the Austin Theatre Alliance, with other experts presenting information at each spot as well. Participants of the “sold out” tour (free but at capacity) were provided with two-way audio systems to encourage interaction and dialogue along the 2 1/4-mile loop.

Starting at Four Seasons Hotel (itself a bit of landmark of the Austin entertainment industry), the tour made the following stops—which, handily enough, makes a great list for a self-guided tour for visitors and locals alike.

Photo by Michael Knox, courtesy of the Downtown Austin Alliance.

Ai Weiwei’s Forever Bicycles on the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail

At the Waller Creek Delta, attendees viewed Ai Weiwei’s Forever Bicycles (2014). The artwork is part of a two-part outdoor exhibition of large-scale installations by the Chinese artist and political activist and is presented by a unique partnership between the Waller Creek Conservancy and The Contemporary Austin.

Photo by Michael Knox, courtesy of the Downtown Austin Alliance.

Brush Square/Downtown Station

In addition to being adjacent to a Capital Metro Downtown Station at Fourth Street at the Austin Convention Center (and thus a convenient place to talk about local transit) Brush Square is also the location of three historic museums, all must-sees for Austin aficionados. Proposed plans for the stop and adjacent square aim to enhance the area’s public space and facilitate connections between MetroRail and other forms of transportation.

Photo by Michael Knox, courtesy of the Downtown Austin Alliance.

Republic Square

Located near the federal courthouse and dating back to 1839, Republic Square is one of Austin’s three remaining original historic town squares, as well as a great stop for breakfast tacos. A partnership between the Downtown Austin Alliance, Austin Parks Foundation, and the City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department revitalized the park, which now offers diverse educational programming, fitness classes for all ages, movies in the park, cultural arts, and music. A full-service café is set to open in 2018.

Photo by Michael Knox, courtesy of the Downtown Austin Alliance.

Austin Central Public Library

Designed by renowned regional architecture firm Lake/Flato, along with national design firm Shepley Bulfinch, the 198,000-square-foot building represents a significant moment in the creation of Austin’s civic community space, as well as a stellar example of adaptive reuse of what was formerly a brownfield site.

Photo by Michael Knox, courtesy of the Downtown Austin Alliance.

Attendees were guided through new construction near the library, including a “festival street,” shared-space design, and improvements to the Shoal Creek Greenbelt and Lance Armstrong Bikeway. The new Second Street “butterfly bridge” crosses Shoal Creek next to the library. Participants also got an exclusive rooftop visit before the library opened for the day.

Photo by Michael Knox, courtesy of the Downtown Austin Alliance.

Smart Second Street Living Lab

The group visited The Smart Second Street project, which will “deploy and utilize devices and networks, collect data, present and share information, and conduct analyses that help businesses, civic groups, residents, visitors, and the city promote the quality and efficiency of living, working and visiting the Smart Second Street district,” according to the Austin CityUp website.

Photo by Michael Knox, courtesy of the Downtown Austin Alliance.


The final stop on the tour took place at the newly completed Fareground, a modern, underground food hall featuring outposts of local, well-regarded restaurants and outdoor space for gathering and enjoying the food and drink. It’s also a good example of adaptive reuse that breathed life into a stale space at the bottom of a Congress Avenue office tower built in the 1980s.