City of Austin preparing to fence off downtown alley to curb crime

Hayden Baggett

The City of Austin is preparing to fence off a downtown alley that city officials have described as criminally-active and bad for business.

The alley, which runs through the 700 block of Red River Street and connects to Waller Creek, will be blocked by two 10-foot fences, said Joel Sher, chair of Austin’s Downtown Commission. Sher said the decision to fence the space came in mid-January after the Red River Cultural Districts Merchants Association brought the alley to the attention of his commission.

“The businesses in the area have an issue with many of the activities that are going on in that alley, and those issues are mainly around criminal activity,” Sher said. “We have been told it’s everything from prostitution to drugs to, I believe, some assaults.”

The Merchants Association previously attempted to curb crime in the alley by hiring security and using additional lighting, Sher said, but those measures ultimately backfired.

“A private security officer was there at one point in time, and he had actually been assaulted,” Sher said. “That obviously didn’t work out, and the expense of having a full-time patrol officer down there is prohibitive.”

Cody Cowan, executive director of the Merchants Association, discussed how crime has impacted the community in the meeting with the Downtown Commission on Jan. 16. Cowan said the alleyway is surrounded by a quarter of Austin’s music venues and a community of homeless people.

“A small piece of that community is folks who have extreme mental illness and addiction problems,” Cowan said during the meeting. “Adjacent to that we have criminal organizations that are utilizing those addicts and mentally-ill folks to help them in their drug and sex trades, and they’re preying upon the homeless and the guests that we have at Red River.”

Cowan said the fences will not solve underlying social problems, but without them, the alley will remain “a magnet and an anchor for criminal behavior downtown.”

Cowan did not respond to The Daily Texan’s request for comment.

Sher said the Downtown Commission voted to recommend the fence installation to Austin City Council, and the council allocated funds for the fence through the Economic Development Department. However, Sher said the cost hasn’t been determined.

Sher said the city is currently searching for a contractor to construct the fences, which will likely be completed in three to four months.

Christopher Lehman, Downtown Commission board member, abstained in the commission’s vote to recommend the fences. Lehman said the fences will only move the problem, not stop it.

“Getting them out of your neighborhood doesn’t really solve it for the next neighborhood they move into,” Lehman said at the meeting. 

Alikhan Virani, economics and architecture junior, said he occasionally visits the alley’s surrounding area. Virani said he disagrees with the plan for fences because they will likely displace the homeless people that use the alley as an encampment.

Virani said the city should substitute the fences with programs that help the people who reside in the alley.

“If the city of Austin is going as far to put up fences, which isn’t cheap, they could help these people instead,” Virani said.


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