Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Triangle – Public vs. Private space by Christina Kaeini

From its initial stages of development, the Triangle has been marked by the controversy of an ongoing war between developers and citizens. This once grassy knoll, affectionately known by neighboring residents as “Triangle Park,” began its initial transformations in late 2003. This area would no longer be home to an open, public space and instead would be replaced by a development of upscale retail and residences. Above the notion of progress over preservation, of greater concern is the idea of accessibility of space and the ever-decreasing amount of it that is available within the city. Over time, this location has changed to represent different notions of progress over loss under the presiding argument that it is promoting economic growth. However, an obvious negative externality of this development is the accessibility of place and how through the essential elements of its design, the Triangle has successfully promoted an environment accessible to a specific demographic and for everyone else, a private space to which they are not privy to.
The texture of the built environment at the Triangle is one of a complex intricacy of lower level retail shops and bars with an upper level of residential and office spaces. Interwoven between these features are clear, built indicators of the visitor’s access to each respective space. The Triangle uses both explicit and subtle strategies to indicate which spaces are permissible to occupy and which are not. It is not surprising that a mixed-use development would have a motive to compartmentalize different areas. However, what makes the experience unsettling is how orchestrated and unauthentic the space feels. It is a deliberate move to “recreate urban life as a civilized ideal” only this time, it will be highly controlled and under the watchful eyes of the development (Zukin 142). Although many spaces within the Triangle feel public, they have been privatized and marketed to serve a specific demographic.
The controlled experience at the Triangle is intrinsically connected to the features of the built environment that direct the visitor around the space. The commercial and retail districts send a welcoming message and invite traffic from off the sidewalk or street and into the shade and confines of the establishment. For example, where the Flying Saucer bar area begins, and the pedestrian sidewalk ends, there is a permeable wrought iron fence (Image 1). It is small in scale and entirely permeable. In contrast, once venturing beyond these areas and into the more enclosed, residential parts, it is increasingly apparent that the fences within this environment are specifically designed to deter non-residents. Instead of permeable, mesh-like fencing delineating porches from pedestrian walkways, the designers have opted for solid brick walls (Image 2). This is a clear example of how the aesthetics of the built environment interact with the visitors who use the space. These design elements are meant to determine the behavior of visitors— but what is the demographic of these visitors and how does the Triangle target a specific audience?
The Triangle is centered on a consumer culture that offers upscale retail stores and restaurants that cater to an audience who is able to afford their services. At this point, this analysis has centered primarily on the lower level of the Triangle, however, the other half of the development is devoted to residential units. Once browsing the Triangle website, it is clear the direction they wish the development to go and are careful to create an image that will effectively lead it there. Combining chic lifestyles for a young demographic all whilst maintaining Austin’s “eclectic vibe,” the Triangle boasts that this development is not another typical Austin development, the Triangle is “life as its meant to be” (The Triangle Austin). Boasting of its interior park, which is frequented by visitors attracted by either farmers markets or live music, the Triangle insists it maintains one of Austin’s most prized ambitions, to appeal to the “whimsical and energetic in us all” (The Triangle Austin). However, maintaining the initial criticism of this development as one that values private space over public space, it begs the questions, who exactly are these “urban dwellers” and do they really have “something for everyone?” (The Triangle Austin). What about affordable pricing? Due to the very notion that this development is home to higher scale retail outlets and upscale eateries, it is necessary to recognize that it is catering to a very specific demographic, and in this case, it is not an inclusive one.
Furthermore, based on initial observations of the space, there is an obvious demographic using the space, and contrary to what the Triangle boasts, it is not an inclusive one. From the initial documentations of the site, the demographic characteristics were recorded by observing the type of cars parked in the development. The lots are filled with German engineered vehicles, and on a rare occasion, sprinkled with a Honda or Toyota.  The evidence of a higher ratio of expensive vehicles to more affordable ones shows that this development is predominantly meant to serve an upper class. Not only are the cars an indication of who is using the space, but also the type of retail shops available can easily identify the income level of shoppers. The restaurants, bars, and shops have few affordable options. Even a simple grilled cheese has gone gourmet at “Chedds.” The affordability of the area lends itself to describe the democratic nature of the space. The Triangle does not cater to a diverse demographic, it is clearly targeted to wealthier visitors.
The concept of a democratic space is one inherently more public than private. It is interesting to notice the Triangle’s relationship and connectivity to other areas of the city. In doing so, its exclusivity becomes increasingly clear. One way of determining accessibility is by examining the design in terms of pedestrian and car oriented access. However, these are not mutually exclusive, and as is evident in the Triangle, there can be a blurred boundary between the two. The presence of dedicated bike-lanes is a key indicator for bike-ability and can be assessed in terms of access to the development. The Triangle has multiple transportation options; it has a dedicated park-and-ride facility within the development (The Triangle Austin). In addition, it has bike racks and sidewalks at 100% of its stops. However, it lacks bike lanes that connect transit stops and it also has no stops within the development. For each element of pedestrian and bike friendly design aspects it lacks, it makes up for in its abundance of parking garages and surface lots. It is far easier to access the development from the comfort of your air-conditioned car. In this sense, it is a car-oriented development. If the development meant to attract a variety of people, and in fact “have something for everyone” then wouldn’t it ensure equal access for all modes of transportation? Its connectivity to other areas around it affects its inclusion and in effect creates an exclusive environment. The exclusivity and private aspects of the Triangle is in stark contrast to what once existed on the site.
Echoing earlier parts of this research, after conducting informal interviews with visitors and residents, the history of the Triangle has changed over the past 10 years, and according to popular opinion, not in a positive way. In fact, some residents will argue that the developers were successful in eliminating an inclusive space in Austin in favor of a center to stimulate the economy through consumerism. This has become an increasingly important issue in the discussion privatization of public space. It is understood that the Triangle will produce revenue for the city, but what is not readily apparent, is how it is selective in bringing a specific demographic to the area. It is not a public space in which one can visit without being a customer; it is a private space to which only patrons feel welcome. This is aided by accessibility and the textures of the built environment.
 In summary, through interviews and observational research, a more holistic understanding of this site began to describe an exclusive area. Not only is this development constructed on the site of a once public park, but also the design of the Triangle lends itself to describe an exclusive environment filled with private areas to which only an upper class demographic has access. It is selective in terms of which demographic it serves, offering only upscale restaurants and residential units. Not only is this selective environment evident in the demographic is serves, but also through the built environment. The texture and materiality of fencing proves to dictate which spaces are accessible and aids to strictly orchestrate the movement of visitors.  

Works Cited
"Austin Townhomes and Apartments." The Triangle Austin. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 June 2013. <>.
Zukin, Sharon. Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. USA: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.