Photo by Lisa Rehbein
The Downtown Austin Alliance continues its effort to transform the ‘Dirty Sixth’ district into a diverse, day-long family experience
What began as Austin’s bustling mercantile shopping district for farmers and ranchers in the mid-1800s has transformed into a bar-heavy entertainment district, a trend that a local nonprofit group has now spent eight years working against.
“East Sixth Street doesn’t look as good as it could,” said Charlie Betts, director of the Downtown Austin Alliance, an organization that is actively recruiting diverse businesses into the district. “I think the first improvement we would like to see is just a general enhancement of the physical street, but No. 2 is that we need more daytime uses. We need a little bit better of a mix.”
When the DAA launched an initiative to create a more well-rounded East Sixth Street experience in the mid-2000s, the roadway—which spans from Congress Avenue to I-35—had 74 street-level storefront spaces. Fifty-four of them were bars.
“That needle hasn’t moved a ton in terms of category, but it’s moved in terms of operators and experiences,” said Molly Alexander, DAA associate director, about the businesses that now make up the street. “We try to work together to say, ‘If this is the brand of Austin, how can it live up to that brand?’”
Finding a solution
In 2006, the DAA created a retail recruiter position within its organization. The recruiter’s purpose is to bring in unique-to-Austin businesses from other cities, such as Dallas, Houston and New Orleans, and “matchmake” them with current downtown property owners who are looking for the next successful East Sixth Street business.
“What I am working toward is creating more of a place that is somewhere I would personally go to on a Saturday night,” said Meredith Sanger, DAA’s retail recruiter. “I’m that kind of demographic—I look at 25- to 35-year-old educated, young professionals and drawing that type of crowd in. And they want more of an experience.”
One idea Sanger is pursuing is a fast-casual ramen restaurant concept, a business that is doing well in New York City.
“I lived in New York for four years, so I was exposed to all of these innovative ideas,” Sanger said. “So I always go back to what’s going on up there because eventually it’ll trickle down to Austin.”
Such was the case with the January opening of Easy Tiger, a restaurant concept located at 709 E. Sixth St. Easy Tiger is a product of the 24 Diner group and is headed by restaurateur Scott Hentschel. He said the DAA approached him about opening a new restaurant along East Sixth Street, and at first, he refused.
“We had zero interest in Sixth Street when our representative from the DAA came by,” Hentschel said. “She was very convincing, though, and we decided to go check it out. We got there and saw how beautiful the space was, saw what an unbelievable location it had along Waller Creek and instantly got excited about it. We knew we were getting in there at the perfect time.”
Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League’s Midnight Cowboy Cocktail Lounge—which officially opened March 9—was built in the old Midnight Cowboy oriental massage parlor at 313 E. Sixth St. The lounge is based off New York City’s speakeasy concept, as it only has space for about 15 customers. The nook offers cocktails and hand-cut ice—all put together tableside.
League took advantage of what East Sixth Street has so much of to offer—an untouched historic presence, Alexander said.
“Tim didn’t want to take too much out of the building because there’s something interesting about this really tiny, small building that has a lot of secrets,” Alexander said.
Looking back at history
Although East Sixth Street remained a bustling thoroughfare from its inception in the 19th century until the early 1960s, it was its quick decline in the ’60s and ’70s, due to businesses leaving for suburban Austin, that helped solidify the district as the historic entertainment destination it is today. According to the DAA, because the decline happened so quickly, very few of the buildings were renovated to be brought into current architectural styles.
Because East Sixth Street is a national historic district, 65 percent of the buildings that were on the street before 1900 are still in place today. Even so, with the decline came cheap rent and the chance for entrepreneurs to create quick bar and music destinations.
It’s the history of this part of Sixth Street that has the DAA working to revitalize it into a diverse entertainment experience.
“I think it’s about an evolution. It took 30 years to get East Sixth Street to what it is today, and it will take 10 years to get it to its next place,” Alexander said, adding that the city’s streetscapes project, which is anticipated to go before voters as part of the city’s bond referendum in November, will help fund road improvements and widen sidewalks.
The completion of the Waller Creek Master Plan, which will remove land from the area’s 100-year flood plain, will also allow more room for the private sector to further enhance the area, she said.
“We hope to fund the next iteration of the infrastructure because when the current infrastructure was done, it was completed prior to some of the crowds that we have currently,” Alexander said.
The DAA has already seen some success in creating a more diverse, 18-hour family experience on the strip. Since its recruiting effort began, the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz was built, the Old School Bar & Grill opened its doors and Mexican restaurant El Sol Y La Luna set up shop. But still, there is more to be done, Alexander says.
“One of the cool things about East Sixth is that it’s local,” she said. “There are a few national retailers here, but it’s a real local street. That’s what makes it interesting to us.”