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Dwarfing the Frost Tower

Two new skyscrapers coming to Congress

By Kimberly Reeves, Fri., May 26, 2006

The much-vaunted Frost Bank Tower, with its 33 floors, will soon be dwarfed by two projects on Congress Avenue, both more than 40 stories. Each skyscraper will sport some combination of office, retail, hotel, and condominium space, a combination that once meant a project, like the Omni Hotel, had miscalculated the market but now means the market is flush with the heady new urbanism that marks most major new skyscrapers.

One project is the 47-story skyscraper currently dubbed Fifth & Congress. Built by local developer Tom Stacy, the project will offer more than a million square feet of mixed-use space, which is about the size of a full shopping mall and the exact amount of space the entire Austin office market absorbed in 2005. The tower will be designed by Connecticut-based Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, best known for designing the twin Petronas Towers in Malaysia, featured in the movie Entrapment.

The other project, a point tower known as Congress Condominiums, is still in its formative stages of development but is expected to loom well over 40 stories. Sitting on land owned by Schlotzsky's operators John and Jeff Wooley, the project will be primarily a 250-unit condominium project. That's more than twice the size of the Nokonah at Ninth and Lamar.

These break all barriers for Austin skyscrapers. Lest one fear the Houstonization of Austin, however, Austin has yet to see the real heady glut of Houston's oil & gas glory days. The top 10 skyscrapers in Houston – and, yes, that includes the original Enron headquarters – all are more than 50 stories. The Bank of America Tower in Dallas scales 72 floors, and even Fort Worth has managed to land a 60-story skyscraper.

Both projects, while warmly received by city commissions, will face the hurdles of City Council variances. The city has simply never built a project as dense, and tall, as Fifth & Congress. And a historic blacksmith shop sits on the site of the Congress Condominiums. Vice-President Dave Mahn of Benchmark Land Development isn't quite sure what to do with the building, but he's working feverishly with the preservation architect who saved the Schneider Store to find some way to incorporate the stable into his project.

And why do the buildings on Congress Avenue seem so big? Historian Ed VanDeVort, who presented a lecture to the members of the Austin History Center Association this week, says it's simply because Congress Avenue is so wide. As the parade route to the Capitol back in the mid-1800s, it was plotted as 120 feet wide, compared to the 80-foot width of most city streets. That extra 20 feet on each side give a sense of space that doesn't exist in cities like Boston, Philadelphia, or New York, VanDeVort said.

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