Land Rush

The Early Days

How did we get here? Remember that, back in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the idea of a downtown waterfront civic complex began to coalesce, there were no skyscrapers in Austin, and the official "central business district" ended at the Fourth Street railroad tracks. The warehouse blocks south of those tracks were renewal-ready as early as 1960, when APT Inc. proposed Texas Center, an enormous shopping/hotel complex at the foot of Congress Avenue and overlapping the Annex site. That plan went nowhere, but it planted the idea of a big redevelopment project in the Warehouse District.

Meanwhile, the city government had overflowed the Municipal Building (built in 1938 at Eighth and Colorado, site of Austin's City Hall since 1852), and by 1969 the notion to build a new City Hall at a different site had arisen in earnest. Sites all over the city center were on the table -- from the north side of 15th Street (now the Erwin Center) to the south side of Barton Springs Road (now Town Lake Center, aka the Sumiken Building). While the Warehouse District had its supporters, it was generally held to be too expensive.

illustration
This early Eighties rendering
by architects Sinclair Black and Andrew Vernooy depicts a proposed Municipal Office Complex with City Hall, in the background, fronted by
a full block of public space facing
the First Street bridge.

That changed in 1972 when, as Richard Nixon was meeting Chou En-Lai, Austinites debated a proposal for a 16-block Convention/Civic Center, including a City Hall, again at the foot of Congress Avenue and overlapping today's Annex site. This got deep-sixed by citizen outrage at the price tag, but it effectively yoked City Hall and the Warehouse District forevermore. (It also spawned, as a less costly Plan B on the other side of the Colorado, the Town Lake civic center proposal that, with fewer modifications than you might think, was approved by voters this past November.)

At the time, the city only owned one-quarter of one block of the Annex site, next to Liberty Lunch and across San Antonio from the old Electric Building, then-home of the City Council Chambers. In 1974 and 1975, the city agreed to spend upwards of $2 million to buy the rest of the Annex site, starting with the middle block (costing $1.4 million) because it already contained usable buildings -- today's City Council Chambers and Municipal Annex, formerly home to the state Water Development Board. Had this not been the case, we might today be arguing over an entirely different piece of downtown.

At the time, the Annex was big enough to accommodate the city departments in rented office space. But with unusual foresight, city staff presented in 1977 a $24.5 million pay-as-we-go plan for a City Hall at the site -- and with unusual foresight, the City Council voted it down because of, as reported in Texas Architect, "uncertainty over how the development would affect revitalization of the Warehouse District." Never again would local powers-that-be really question whether a City Hall belonged in the District, although in 1978 Planning Commission Chairman Mike Guerrero led a failed effort to get the city to sell the land for residential development -- which was even then a high priority on the city's downtown wish list.


The Evolution of the Municipal Office Complex

But also in 1978, Mayor Carole McClellan (now "One Tough Grandma" Rylander) led her own downtown renewal charge, and led Austin into bed with the American City Corporation, a unit of The Rouse Company (owners of both Highland and Northcross Malls). The American City plan -- which called for an office/retail/entertainment "superblock" adjacent to the Annex site -- was the first to suggest that City Hall could be built by a private developer and then leased back to the city, though it didn't specify any terms for such a deal.



The City Hall Complex would include three blocks of office space for CSC, two blocks of residential development (AMLI), and structured parking.

The American City plan was widely reviled and soon enough abandoned, but the idea of public/private partnership -- and, consequently, the combination of City Hall with non-civic uses in a complex -- appealed to a City Council loath to go before the voters with a bond issue. In 1982, the city issued a request for proposals for such a public-private project, but accepted proposals for the Warehouse District in general, not the city-owned blocks in particular. So the city got a bunch of dramatically different plans, each with its own corps of aggressive lobbyists, who fomented so much chaos as to spawn the city's first anti-lobbying restrictions.

After much rancor, the council decided to start over, limiting the project to the Annex site, and choosing the architect and developers of the newly labeled Municipal Office Complex (MOC) in separate national competitions. What they ended up with for a "final" plan was a melange of local concepts and players from the previous round -- Robert Barnstone's idea as rendered by Sinclair Black and built by the Watson-Casey Companies (see the Sinclair Black plan, above).

Sinclair Black, today the sage of the Warehouse District, is often credited with the idea behind the MOC, but Black and Andrew Vernooy's original proposal was for a City Hall complex on both sides of Congress Avenue, where two skyscrapers stand now. Watson-Casey, then the hottest player in downtown development, originally and ironically proposed a swap of the Annex site for its holdings along Shoal Creek -- where they later built Republic Square, which became the Hobby Building, which the city now wants to buy as an ancillary part of the CSC deal. (That initial Watson Casey plan also included a new downtown art museum on the very same block where, if the CSC deal goes down, it will finally end up.)

It was future Councilmember Barnstone who gave us what became the MOC template -- a large public square where the Annex now stands, with a City Hall to its north to be paid for with income from office, retail, and parking flanking the plaza. At the time, this idea was the middle ground between the cheaper-but-dowdier Watson-Casey plan (pushed by city staff and McClellan) and the nicer-but-dearer Black/Vernooy proposal (pushed by architects and McClellan's successor, Ron Mullen). Plus, it used the existing site, recommended by the Downtown Revitalization Task Force chaired by the late Alan Taniguchi, even though other developers thought the city foolish to not sell the now-very-valuable property.

So the Barnstone plan -- as rendered by Black and Vernooy, with much more panache, in winning the design competition -- would have been realized had Watson-Casey, winner of the developer's contest, not run afoul of Mullen's successor Frank Cooksey and his more progressive, populist council. In 1985, Cooksey and Co. decided that the Watson-Casey project was too dominated by its commercial elements, made substantial changes to the design (most of them borrowed from the runner-up to the Black/Vernooy plan, designed by current UT architecture dean Larry Speck), set off yet another furor, and ended up firing Watson-Casey when the developer started to show signs of financial strain; a year later, the firm was bankrupt.

The City Hall project then became a dead animal, repulsive to the touch, but came back in 1994 as a poison pill, a way to distract the city's newly hired (and since fired) downtown consultants from their original mission, drawing up a city subsidy package for a downtown shopping mall. Following the shifting route of the downtown renewal train, this newest plan featured a hotel and residential development instead of the MOC's office and retail space. However, these less lucrative uses would have required an actual city bond issue to finance the project, and when this became clear, the idea quickly died. (Former Councilmember Eric Mitchell's grandstand play to get City Hall built in East Austin -- a perfectly worthy idea advanced for the wrong reasons -- did not help.) Since then, the only other city project floated for the Annex site, until the CSC deal, was a failed attempt to get a new Central Library -- combined with a City Hall Lite -- on the November bond ballot.


The New Deal

And now we have the CSC deal, which brings back the MOC in inferior form, not that the MOC was itself the high point of Austin urban history. The CSC/City Hall "plaza" is no longer the full block of public space, opening up to the lake, envisioned by Barnstone, Black, or Speck, and no matter how many employees CSC brings downtown, they won't be as numerous or diverse as the users of the more integrated and varied MOC (though, as Cooksey and Co. argued, not varied or integrated enough). Vitality comes not from a mix of uses but from a mix of users, which also requires a mix of spaces and places and attitudes and cultures and income brackets. Moving yuppies from one building to another throughout the Warehouse District -- work at CSC, eat at Sullivan's, sleep at the Poleyard -- does not in itself beget vitality. (And, not to be totally heretical, but did we miss something? When was it decided that downtown needed more office space? We thought the goal was to get more non-office users -- that it was the residential and retail and cultural and entertainment tenants that needed the incentives. Silly us.)

Plus, after having already given away the store to CSC, it's unlikely that this council will pull a Cooksey and start making design changes, no matter how necessary they might be. (A future council might, but then what happens?) We can only hope that CSC and its architects have exquisite taste, because as the deal stands right now we're basically stuck with whatever they give us, even though they're building on the city's most valuable and desirable land. In fact, the city itself will pony up to prettify the CSC blocks, and what design and compatibility standards do exist for the site in the Land Development Code -- the Waterfront Overlay -- may be waived.

So it's hard to see how the CSC complex won't be a fairly boring and potentially quite ugly place -- as could an entire "Digital Downtown District." It's one thing to get the software companies off the growth fringe, out of places like the Terrace PUD; this should have been attempted long ago. But bringing them all downtown, as opposed to throughout the much larger urban core (hell, much of Research Boulevard is now within "the urban core"), is not essential to realize that goal, and does nothing for downtown that any other employer wouldn't do. To go beyond that and bring them all to one part of downtown -- if that's indeed what a "3-D" means -- is, frankly, kinda silly, and kinda dangerous if it means neglecting or driving out other uses or employers, particularly smaller ones. (Of course, there's no great rush to bring small manufacturers or craftspeople or wholesale merchants -- the people who actually built Downtown Austin -- back into the city center, though that would certainly increase its diversity and vitality.)

More importantly, though, the CSC plan has been shaped by decisions made years ago, in response to conditions that no longer apply. The Warehouse District is no longer a wasteland, but the hottest part of town. Yet we still feel the need to "revitalize" it through city ministrations, even though what the CSC deal proposes is scarcely more valuable to the citizenry, functionally or financially, than what we could have gotten years ago -- or would get today -- upon selling the site outright, parcel by parcel, or trading it for another potential City Hall site.

And there are other sites for a City Hall that make as much sense -- for example, either along Waller Creek or south of the river, both places where the city has, since the failure of the MOC, spent too many millions on perfectly good office buildings that could become part of a city complex. Or, for that matter, what about this vacant lot next to the Hobby Building -- the place where Watson-Casey wanted to put City Hall years ago -- which we were planning to buy anyway? Yet we still feel that a City Hall must go on the Annex site if we are to have one at all. Admittedly, we have blown several chances to acquire or reserve land elsewhere for a City Hall (next to One Texas Center, or on Red River, or as part of the Convention Center expansion), but if this were our intent, chances would no doubt emerge.

And, ironically, now that we've procrastinated so long, the cost of renting city office space hither and yon (not to mention the cost of buying equally dispersed space) is high enough to justify a City Hall financially even without a private-sector partner. (We spend more than twice as much, in constant dollars, on rented space now than we did in 1982.) After approving a billion dollars in new debt in 1998, are Austinites really going to begrudge the city another few million -- beyond the $75 million we'd save over 20 years by getting out of our leased space -- to build a City Hall? If not, then why do we have to cram it awkwardly into a complex with CSC, a tenant which offers little if any added value to City Hall workers and users and the citizens at large, and a company whose desire to even be downtown is a little less than overwhelming?

Why? Because old ideas die very, very slowly in the New Austin. As do old habits. All the more reason to question the rationale for the rush-rush, ask-questions-later CSC deal. We have been told that, as imperfect as CSC may be, "something" on this site is better than "nothing." But we have never tried to put "something" on this site -- just one thing, over and over. We have never gone down any road that could lead us to a different, better use for this site, or a different, better location for City Hall. Or a different, better way to make plans, instead of simply making deals, about Downtown Austin -- which, as the mayor says, belongs to all of us. And if the CSC deal goes down, we never will.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Computer Sciences Corp., Csc, City Hall, Mayor Kirk Watson, Municipal Office Complex, Sinclair Black, Downtown

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