Naked City

A Towering Example

Software developer Vignette Inc. has high hopes for trash-strewn Waller Creek (top). The company has pledged to invest between $5 and $7 million to clean up Waller, which will run alongside its office towers downtown. Besides the cleanup, Vignette says it may build public walkways and bike paths along the neglected creek (bottom).
Software developer Vignette Inc. has high hopes for trash-strewn Waller Creek (top). The company has pledged to invest between $5 and $7 million to clean up Waller, which will run alongside its office towers downtown. Besides the cleanup, Vignette says it may build public walkways and bike paths along the neglected creek (bottom).

Austin's downtown crowd turned out Tuesday night to heap praises on Vignette Inc.'s plans to build its headquarters in the long-neglected east end of downtown, and the Planning Commission followed suit by unanimously approving the company's rezoning request.

The Austin-based software concern has a contract option to buy property along the 500 block of East Cesar Chavez across from the Austin Convention Center, where it intends to build two, possibly three, office towers, ranging from 25 to 30 stories high. The key to landing the site hinges in part on securing a zoning change from Central Business District (commercial and retail) zoning to C.U.R.E., or Central Urban Redevelopment Combining District, a special designation given to projects designed to provide stability or enhance an urban neighborhood. This project, Vignette's advocates say, will do both. Before casting his vote, commissioner Sterling Lands pronounced the project the best thing to happen to downtown in a long time. The matter goes to City Council Nov. 30 for final approval.

Only a few area residents opposed the project, with their objections primarily based on the height of the buildings and increased traffic. Laurie Sneddon, a resident of nearby Villas at Town Lake, said she was opposed to any linkage between the Vignette project and the commercially oriented redevelopment plans for the Rainey Street neighborhood to the south.

Don Bosse, a consultant on the project (as well as a former planning commissioner), provided a Power Point presentation of the Vignette proposal, complete with photos of trash-strewn Waller Creek, the tributary that runs north and south along the property, and digitally enhanced images of what the area would look like after Vignette comes through with its promised $5 million to $7 million to clean up the creek and create public bike trails on both sides of the waterway.

Beautification of the creek has been a must-do project since the Dark Ages -- Bosse, in fact, was a consultant on the 1974 master plan -- but the city, for one reason or another, has never fully committed to the project. Today, city officials have deemed the cost of rehabilitating the creek prohibitive, but with Vignette willing to invest a chunk of money, there may be hope yet.

The creek plan is one of several ideas Vignette has on the drawing board, company officials and advocates say. "Vignette is a an example of Smart Growth in action," said the company's attorney, David Armbrust, a once-vilified development lawyer who two years ago helped forge a truce among leaders of warring environmental, real estate, and business factions. "This is a company that could go anywhere," Armbrust continued in a veiled reference to office sites available in the watershed areas of Southwest Austin. "But it has chosen to support city policy and locate downtown."

Robin Rather, speaking as an environmentalist and downtown business owner, said Vignette stands apart from other major employers moving downtown because the homegrown company is thinking creatively in terms of how its project could benefit the neighborhood. "This is a 'hometown team' type of a firm," she said.

With upward of 2,200 employees, Vignette officials are also kicking around alternative transportation plans for their downtown site. Senior VP Charles Sansbury said the ideas include more flex-time schedules, installing plenty of bike racks, allowing employees to telecommute once or twice a week, and providing a shuttle service during peak drive times. The company has a little over a year to cook up some traffic solutions, as it doesn't expect to break ground until some time next year, with a 2003 completion date slated for the first -- and largest -- building, 750,000 square feet, to go up on the south side of Cesar Chavez at Red River.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Vignette Inc., Planning Commission, Waller Creek, Sterling Lands, Laurie Sneddon, Villas at Town Lake, Don Bosse, Robin Rather, David Armbrust, Charles Sansbury

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