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Central Health Wants to Open a True Healthy Public Market in Austin

A hub of wellness-minded eating and innovation at the Brackenridge Campus

Rendering of Central Health’s Brackenridge Campus with a view of the public market
Rendering of Central Health’s Brackenridge Campus with a view of the public market
Rendering: Gensler/Official
Nadia Chaudhury is the editor of Eater Austin covering food and pop culture, as well as a photographer, writer, and frequent panel moderator and podcast guest.

Central Health, Travis County’s public healthcare network, has grand plans for its Brackenridge Campus. A big component of the blueprints, designed with Gensler, is the proposed public market. This would mean a space dedicated to food vendors offering up healthy fare.

“The basis of health is good food,” said Christie Garbe, the vice president and chief strategy office of Central Health. “We’re hoping to build a structure and a place for health, healthy food, and health innovation that will support the health of our entire community.”

Claudia Maria Herrington, Central Health’s community relations manager, further explained: The goal is to “create a space that will bring people together, and be activated with the idea of health and wellness.”

The Brackenridge Campus encompasses the region between I-35, Red River, and East 12th and 15th streets. The current hospital is being relocated right next door to the Dell Seton Medical Center, which clears up the area for development.

Under the master plan, the campus will look very different. Red River will be straightened out, there will be mixed-use developments (residences, retail, hospitals, offices) and there is even talks of a potential hotel.

Garbe emphasized the public nature of the market: “The true definition of a public market is that the control is retained by a public entity that has a public purpose.” In this case, it’s Central Health, and the goal is to help improve health.

With that mission, the public space will be home to “food vendors, fresh food, prepared food, potentially teaching kitchens, commercial cooking,” listed Garbe. There are talks of programming centered on activities (exercise classes like yoga and the such) and educational sessions.

“We want to dig into the roots here and represent them,” through food, said Claudia. “Those that cook with a focus on health and have interests in health and wellness would be an amazing fit for this project.”

Right now, Central Health is working with nonprofit Project for Public Spaces to formulate a business plan and study as to what can and can’t be done. They’ve conducted informal interviews with local chefs to understand Austin’s culinary landscape. “Our vision really includes featuring our local talent and ideas,” said Garbe, “and making sure that this becomes a place and showcase for the local creativity in the food industry.”

As for the design, don’t expect any modern aesthetics. “What I hope for this space is that it doesn’t look new,” Garbe described. “It looks old and very authentic and keeps in line with the celebration of our culture here.”

A near-future goal is to operate food trucks on the property to gauge interest. This way, it can “get things activated and start building patterns,” said Garbe. “We want people to realize that this is going to be a space for healthy food and a space that can continue to serve and be activated.” What they’ve found is that the current hospital cafeteria is already stretched thin. This would happen after the Seton Family relocates.

Aside from the proper public market food hall, Central Health wants to incorporate a food culture center, highlighting Austin’s cuisines as well as “lost food cultures, especially among our minority populations,” according to Garbe. This would also work as an educational center.

Another goal of the campus and public market is what Garbe referred to as the “beginning of the activation of the innovation zone,” Because of the nature of a mixed-use development, with homes, offices, and hospitals, they’re hoping that people from different fields and backgrounds meet and collaborate on cutting-edge projects.

All of this is meant to make Brackenridge Campus a destination for locals, workers, patients, residents, and any and everyone else from nearby neighborhoods and elsewhere. “Make sure that this is and can become not only a great local neighborhood, but a destination as well,” urged Garbe.

The Central Health team stressed that construction is still a long ways away. These renderings and intentions are just that: plans. Things can change, though the master plan has been approved by the Central Health’s board. In terms of scheduling, the public market is part of the first phase of the project, which means it could happen within five to ten years from now.

While Central Health owns the property, it will not run the real estate portion of the campus. Instead, it’s looking for a master developer to oversee the project in the fall. The revenue made will go towards supporting Central’s healthcare services.

Other similar projects in the city are downtown’s impending food hall Fareground, anchored by Easy Tiger and curated by the ELM Restaurant group and South Austin’s Saint Elmo Market District and the nearby Yard.