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Mexican-American Cultural Center Supporters Fight Proposed Extension Of Red River Street

The front sign and entrance for the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Supporters of the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center in the Rainey Street Historic District are fighting an effort to extend Red River Street, which would require surrendering some of the center's six-acres of parkland.

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Updated on Aug. 17 at 2 p.m.:

An attempt by the city of Austin to extend Red River Street has run into staunch opposition from supporters of a public institution that seeks to preserve Mexican-American and Latino culture.

Supporters of the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center do not want it to surrender a slice of its parking lot to accommodate the widening of an adjacent alleyway and turn it into a city thoroughfare. On Tuesday, the Mexican-American Cultural Center Advisory Board voted unanimously to oppose the project.

The dispute pits members of a community that has largely been displaced from a once predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood against the interests of residents in high-rises developed to meet demand for centrally located homes near nightlife and within an easy walking distance of Lady Bird Lake.

Bars, dockless electric scooters and traffic in the Rainey Street Historic District near downtown Austin, TX on Aug. 11, 2021.
Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
As the Rainey Neighborhood's population density has increased, mobility has become increasingly challenged, city staff say.

"Not an acre, not an inch," said former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, whose late wife Emma is the woman after whom the Mexican-American Cultural Center was named. Barrientos was speaking to the ESB-MACC Advisory Board this month, urging board members not to sacrifice any of the facility's six-acres of dedicated parkland.

Right now, Red River Street ends at Davis Street, an intersection that hosts the 16-story Kimpton Hotel Van Zandt. South of Davis, Red River turns into a narrow, private driveway until it reaches the north end of the ESB-MACC parking lot.

At that point, the driveway veers diagonally southeast to hug the Shore Condominiums and eventually connects with a north-south alleyway that's sometimes referred to as Bierce Lane. That alleyway continues south to reach the entrance of the ESB-MACC.

Aerial view of Red River and the streets around ESB-MACC
Nathan Bernier/KUT
This aerial view looking north over the ESB-MACC shows the private driveway that snakes around the center's parking lot. The driveway would be widened and become an extension of Red River Street under a city proposal.

A neighborhood-led study in 2017 was the first to introduce the idea of extending Red River Street south through some of the ESB-MACC property. The next year, a master plan for the cultural center said such an extension "should be explored as an additional connection," saying access to Red River Street could allow future CapMetro circulator routes to access the cultural center.

In 2019, the city's transportation department conducted its own neighborhood-wide study and concluded that extending Red River would help reduce traffic delays.

"We think this is our chance to make a significant improvement to the Rainey neighborhood mobility situation," Austin Transportation Department program manager Dan Hennessey said, pointing to Rainey Street one block east as the only road that runs through the entire neighborhood.

"People just don't have a lot of options, whether you're driving, biking, walking, rolling," he said. "We think this could be an opportunity to incorporate some of the MACC's own programming and turn [Red River] into a festival street at certain times like Rainey is at others."

But Hennessey was quick to add that the public discussion was at its earliest stages and would "need a lot of people to be on board."

A map showing one scenario for extending Red River Street
City of Austin
This map from a 2019 city study shows one scenario for extending Red River Street.

Some supporters of the ESB-MACC strongly oppose installing a traffic thoroughfare next to the center's main entrance, where large groups of children gather for classes and field trips.

"To have the road so close to us would be disruptive," said Angela Valenzuela, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin's College of Education who helps run Academia Cuauhtli, a Saturday school at the ESB-MACC. She echoed concerns — including those expressed by board vice chair Art Navarro — that any reduction in the center's footprint could limit future growth.

"Cannibalizing our parkland will disfigure our gem of a space that has literally taken decades to create," Valenzuela said. "We risk destroying the parkland feel we have of our space in the name of inner city convenience."

The parking lot of the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center adjacent to an alleyway proposed as a possible extension of Red River Street
Gabriel C. Pérez
The parking lot of the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center adjacent to an alleyway is proposed as a possible extension for Red River Street.

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