The Austin Chronicle

Downtown Bound

City to Lease Downtown Lots to Residential Developers

By Mike Clark-Madison, November 28, 1997, News

The warehouse at lower right is on one of the city lots slated for residential development.

photograph by Jana Birchum

You folks out in the MUD Belt may think Kirk Watson is -- to use the mayor's favorite self-deferential bon mot -- "an annexation maniac who must be stopped," but now that the deed's been done and you've been brought into the Austin fold, you'll learn the truth: He does everything like that. To wit, the city council's new Downtown Initiative, in which Watson (especially) has fixed his considerable energies upon the city's heart, with the same brio lately applied to the city's newly annexed extremities. Of course, and very much in contrast to annexation, the visceral opposition to date to the city's downtown venture would scarcely fill a thimble, and the policy premises behind it are in no way avant-garde.

The highlight of the Downtown Initiative is a set of City of Austin partnerships, mostly with developers already working in the area, to transform some of the city's now-fallow property west of Congress into de rigeur "mixed-use residential communities." To hear it told now, this is about as big a no-brainer as exists on Austin's ample Great City wish list. As Watson describes it, echoed by the full choir of Downtownheads, the land is of no value to the city now, the private sector is already redeveloping adjacent properties, and the city's plan to lease, rather than sell, the land -- and share in the profits -- means new revenue to the General Fund. And so we stride toward Watson's campaign mantra of "5,000 units (of new downtown housing) in five years," without any pain.

"Residential is the key to the mix of uses we want in downtown." --Matt Kreisle, leader of the Heritage Austin downtown-vision effort.
photograph by Jana Birchum

Of course, were it that simple, it wouldn't require anything as grand as an Initiative. This idea is not new with Watson, or even with Schlotzky's impresario John Wooley, Dallas' Post/West (the former Columbus Realty), or the developers of the planned Austin Marketplace on Sixth & Lamar, all among the city's possible downtown dance partners. Nor is the Downtown Initiative all that noteworthy as a real-estate gamble, since you can barely throw a rock in the central city without hitting the site of some developer's planned apartment project, and the projects likely to be built on city lands would form a small fraction of the total units already on the drafting table.

But as a political gesture, the Downtown Initiative is about as important as the fanfare surrounding it would indicate. With its recent resolutions, the City of Austin has disposed of the rotting remains of its failed downtown policy of the last five years, and in doing so has declared a de facto victory in the downtown wars -- awarding the prize to the forces of long-term vision, of downtown as a neighborhood, over those of short-term opportunity, of downtown as a destination.

Renewal Is Nothing New

Back in 1991, when the American Institute of Architects' Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team -- the R/UDAT -- first came to Austin to give downtown renewal a swift kick in the ass, its report identified "development of new residential units in the southwest quadrant of the Downtown" as a key recommendation, and even included a sketch of such a neighborhood. It includes the Pole Yard -- the Electric Utility back-forty that terminates West Avenue and Bowie Street, one of the parcels being trolled in the Downtown Initiative -- along with surrounding blocks adjoining Shoal Creek and Seaholm Power Plant, in a courtyard-style community of the late Eighties variety. Current tastes in downtown residential are more urban and high-rise (like the Brown Building lofts, or the 10-story towers planned for Ninth and Lamar by Perry Lorenz and Robert Barnstone), but the Pole Yard's proximity to Town Lake, and to the envisioned museum/artspace at Seaholm once it closes in 2000, probably precludes anything too massive.

However, although the residential potential of the city-owned lakefront was important enough to the R/UDAT team to justify an actual rendering, it figured only minimally in the text of the report, and even less so in "A Call to Action," the translation of the R/UDAT augurs by the local boosters on its implementation committee, which begat today's Downtown Austin Alliance. Instead, page after page of these 1991 documents focuses on opportunities for downtown retail -- reflective of the big chicken-and-egg question of the time, as well as of the interests of the nascent Alliance. Major property interests saw no promising return on an investment in downtown residential, at least when compared with the much higher rents and dollar volumes produced by hotels, retail complexes, facilities for tourists, and other "destination" amenities with little relationship to downtown as a neighborhood.

Today, conventional wisdom is that you can't have a thriving retail and service base downtown unless people live there. "Residential is the key to the mix of uses we want in downtown," says Matt Kreisle, leader of the Heritage Austin downtown-vision effort, which the Downtown Initiative has installed as the pivot point of downtown renewal. "We need to give people a sense of ownership, a neighborhood that reflects the community as a whole."

Back in 1991, though, the projects seen as the big levers for downtown renewal were the Austin Convention Center -- which, if not entirely inimical to the vision of downtown as a neighborhood, doesn't provide much of a residential amenity -- and two competing megamall projects: Bennett Properties' East Side Mall, which is still theoretically in the pipeline, and the long-dead Trinity Square, adjoining the Convention Center and largely dependent on it as a raison d'etre. Trinity Square -- represented by Ron Kessler, at the time the president of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce -- was supposed to be so essential for downtown renewal that the city was asked to pony up $60 million in subsidies for it, a proposal so controversial that it nearly killed the city's whole downtown-renewal effort at the starting line.

The saga of the city's involvement with downtown renewal is perhaps best summed up by the sad story of Keyser/Marston, the San Francisco-based consulting firm retained by the city to develop its downtown strategy. When Keyser/Marston's Gerry Trimble first arrived in town, he was tasked (mostly by then-Mayor Bruce Todd) with coming up with a suitably attractive incentive package for downtown retail development, i.e., Trinity Square. When the citizenry choked on this, Keyser/Marston's efforts were redirected (by then-councilmember Max Nofziger) toward packaging a new City Hall, based on the mid-1980s plan for a joint-use Municipal Office Complex, on the city's lands south of the Warehouse District. When this proved to be even more expensive than Trinity Square, thus producing more gagging from the populace, Keyser/Marston's assignment was downscaled into a more broadly defined space-planning exercise for city offices, which is where it stood when the city council finally terminated funding for the consultant in 1996.

1: The Pole Yard, where Post/West Properties proposes a residential development on city land. 2-3: John Wooley wants to build apartments on his lot (2) and the city's (3). 4: Liberty Lunch. 5: Seaholm Power Plant.

Filling the Vision Gap

This whole story was artfully summarized in one sentence of this year's "A Call to Finish," the follow-up to "A Call for Action" spawned by the R/UDAT team's return engagement in September: "After a promising start with a consultant developing a strategy for public [i.e., city] participation in the revitalization of downtown, City efforts seem to have stalled." Downtown players with different goals from those advanced, for most of this decade, by the Chamber or the Alliance would probably have spun this sentiment in the opposite direction -- that after a disastrous start with a consultant, the city has finally gotten itself together.

In February of this year, the city council formally junked its own downtown strategy efforts and joined up with Kreisle's Heritage Austin project. Heritage Austin, a spinoff of the preservation-minded Heritage Society, is a volunteer group that includes several architects attempting to guide development in downtwon Austin along New Urbanism lines; paramount among Heritage Austin's initiatives is the push for downtown residential development. As part of the city's new Downtown Initiative, it is supplying Heritage Austin with funding. "The main thing [the Downtown Initiative] does for us is... provide dollars to get the message out," says Kreisle. "We'll have a community design center located on Congress, so people can come in and get excited about downtown any time of day. We'll hopefully be a lot more open and visible. We've just been doing it as volunteers, and it's been very difficult."

While Kreisle is doing all this on a purely volunteer basis, he gets something out of it too, namely lots of glory. And that won't hurt Kreisle's architecture firm, Page Southerland Page, which has for more than 100 years had a reputation for designing large corporate and government buildings, not leading the drive for progressive inner-city infill.

Now that Heritage Austin is being championed by the city, it's in a position that was ostensibly held by the Downtown Austin Alliance. Though the DAA has made important accomplishments on an everyday scale -- street improvements, sidewalk cafes, the Downtown Rangers -- its own confusions and conflicts and struggles have lamed its attempts to author a broad-based downtown strategy, one less premised on big-ticket commercial/retail magic bullets and more respectful of downtown as a full-service, 24-hour neighborhood. As Kreisle views it, "There's still no defining vision for downtown, and until we have one, people aren't understanding our opportunities. We don't know what to do, and whether we're doing it right or wrong, we'll be letting individual projects determine who we are and where we go."

The DAA's efforts over the last year to build more grassroots coalitions beyond its base of big-time property owners tacitly acknowledge the Alliance's failure to fulfill both parts of its motto -- "A Voice and a Vision for Downtown." (The Alliance's latest annual report is entitled "Building Bridges.") The DAA hasn't been lacking in voice, but vision has been in fairly short supply, and Heritage Austin -- one of whose founding partners was DAA chairman emeritus David Bodenman -- has taken up the slack. The DAA has heartily endorsed the Downtown Initiative.

The policy shifts of the city and the DAA were reflected in the recommendations made by the R/UDAT team at its return engagement, R/UDAT Revisited -- its 1991 vision for the lakefront emerged from its former shadows to become the #1 action point, and the team's new rendering graces the cover of "A Call to Finish." It has helped immeasurably, of course, that what in 1991 was the long view of downtown-as-neighborhood -- advanced by architects like Kreisle and his Heritage Austin partner, veteran downtown sage Sinclair Black -- has now been embraced by the marketplace.

Take, for example, John Wooley, who in a former life was Gary Bradley's partner in Circle C Ranch, but who today -- in addition to overseeing the Schlotzky's empire -- owns a big chunk of the Warehouse District, which has been, shall we say, a little bit more successful than Circle C. The city is only too happy to let Wooley -- who set the ball rolling on the Downtown Initiative in the first place by asking the city to lease him some underutilized property -- take the lead on its residential partnership. The area he wants to build apartments on lies on the fringe of the booming Westside entertainment district -- a boom scarcely envisioned by the R/UDAT, or the DAA, or the city and its downtown consultants, and which would be advanced still further by a 24-hour, downtown-resident customer base.

Sidestepping the Process

Much of the grousing about the Downtown Initiative centers on whether it's ethical, or even legal, for the city to negotiate with specific developers like Wooley or Post/West (brought in by Wooley on his project and by the city itself on the Pole Yard), instead of going through its traditional Request for Proposal (RFP) process. After all, it's city property, so why should a developer like Columbus Realty be allowed to skip the usual hoops of a bidding process and an examination of its minority participation practices?

It turns out that nothing in either the City Code or the state Local Government Code would preclude the city's entering into what is, ultimately, a franchise or concession for the use of its property without the benefit of an RFP, and the results of previous city RFP attempts for development projects have, in the current City Council's view, been fairly ghastly, divisive, and unproductive.

However, the Downtown Initiative includes, in addition to Heritage Austin's involvement, a couple of other public checks and balances, in the creation of a stakeholder advisory committee (on top of the city's already-existing Downtown Commission) and the drafting of guidelines by the Council-appointed Design Commission; guidelines, by the way, which specifically require minority participation. The Design Commission may also forestall some of the headaches that we've seen with the Convention Center, whose emerging expansion plans are, at least in part, needed to fix mistakes made in the design and forecasting for the current facility -- and whose latest expansion visions impinge on light rail and destroy 75 units of existing downtown housing at the Railyard. (Clearly, the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau is lagging behind the downtown-as-neighborhood trend.)

The devil is in these sorts of details, not in up-front concerns about Wooley or Post/West -- who, remember, would be paying the city, not the other way round à la Trinity Square -- getting a sweetheart deal. City sources are already backing away from the Downtown Initiative's stated timeline of groundbreaking within six months, and even Kreisle, whose enthusiasm for downtown renewal rivals Watson's (and made him and Heritage Austin the powers they are today), cautions that "Nothing is easy. But I think it's do-able; the community is ready, the economy is right, and the council and community are behind it. We'll see some history made in this city over the next several years."

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