Naked City

Council Watch

Naked City
By Doug Potter

Angles in the Architecture

Austin said it wanted more dynamic impact from its new City Hall, and architect Antoine Predock has responded with lots of angles. One of them was so sharp and protruding, in fact, that Predock banged his forehead on it while showing off his latest model Thursday, proving that even if this work of architecture doesn't exactly knock your socks off, it will certainly put an eye out. City Council members now have to decide if they can afford to build it without suffering a few political wounds themselves.

That's because Predock's latest design promises to cost $8 million more than the $37.3 million the council set aside for the project, and the actual blueprints for the building are still far from complete. Combine that with the recent announcement that the city will pay $5.1 million to build a private tunnel beneath City Hall to connect neighboring Computer Sciences Corp. office towers, and rumors of a money pit on the shores of Town Lake are bound to arise.

When Predock first rolled out a City Hall concept in January, it looked too much like a parking structure for many and was met with an avalanche of criticism. The new model Predock was toting around last week softens the long, flat lines with a jutting roof and a bronze, perforated skin that relieves the stolid glare of white limestone. Predock is pitching this building as a more "animated" version of his previous concept, adding some real conversation starters to make his point. There's a waterfall, a wall of limestone through the center of the parking garage, skylights, and a two-story, double-paned photovoltaic window that floods the central atrium with sunlight, generates electricity, and serves as a giant chimney to exhaust hot air. It's modern, it's organic, and it's got nooks and crannies for strategy huddles and dealmaking. So who's got a problem with it?

As of this week, it seems, no one -- at least no one who has put their dismay into words. Phones in council offices are quiet, so it's not likely anyone will be bringing out the tar and feathers just yet.

Council Member Will Wynn says it was the city's initial expectation of what it would cost to build an unconventional City Hall that was unreasonable, not the new $45 million price tag. At $192 a square foot, the new City Hall would still be, pound for pound, cheaper than all other civic buildings that have been recently built or planned in Austin, including the terminal at Bergstrom Airport ($199/sq.ft.), the Texas History Museum ($206/sq.ft.), or the Austin Museum of Art ($300/sq.ft.). Wynn called the proposed City Hall a "bargain" in comparison. Council members are also comforted, no doubt, that the city won't need to issue more bond debt to make up for the extra cost. Other council members haven't been quite so enthusiastic, but Wynn seems to be expressing the prevailing sentiment.

Massive Breakdown

Budget increases for City Hall are but a pittance, however, compared with the money at stake in the proposed development on the Bennett Tract in East Austin. Thursday, city staff proffered an incentive package to Riata Development worth $23 million (of which about $13 million is in tax abatements) to help Riata lure a major employer and include some affordable housing on the site. But anyone who believed that city assistance could bridge the demands of surrounding neighbors -- who want less density and more residential uses on the site -- and Riata, who insists that they have to build at a density comparable to downtown to make a project financially feasible on this overpriced piece of land, was out of the loop.

Neighbors, church leaders, and Riata have been negotiating for nine months, but all hopes for compromise were essentially dashed four months ago, when the Guadalupe neighborhood made its final offer on how much commercial development it could stand. Riata principal Matt Mathias said that he could not accept that limit without other concessions, which the neighbors could not agree to. Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corp. director Mark Rogers says the neighborhood gave up believing at that point that Riata could ever scale the massive project down to a tolerable level. As laid out in a zoning proposal that went before City Council Thursday, Riata would be allowed to build a hotel and other commercial buildings as high as 200 feet on the western side of the site, with over 90% impervious cover.

But Mathias said Thursday that he thought he had a deal, up until neighborhood reps went to the podium to oppose the zoning plan. Under a proposal forged by Council Members Raul Alvarez and Danny Thomas, Riata included residential buffers along San Marcos and Ninth Streets to separate adjacent neighborhoods from the more dense development facing I-35, and one entire tract between Eighth and Ninth Streets was to be zoned entirely residential and include lower-cost housing. Mathias said he had also agreed to building heights on the eastern side of the tract just a few feet over single-family zoning limits, to build a public plaza, and to arrange buildings so as not to completely block neighbors' views of downtown and the Capitol. Mathias said he thought he'd given the neighbors everything they wanted.

Apparently, however, Mathias had misjudged just how much the Guadalupe neighborhood doesn't want his development. "This is as incompatible [with the neighborhood] as the mall was," says Rogers, referring to the commercial development proposed on the site in 1991. "There's better compatibility standards on Congress Avenue than what we're getting on Ninth Street." Rogers points out that under the current zoning plan, development density on portions of the Bennett tract could be equal to what's permitted in the Central Business District.

Thursday night, council members seemed to agree with Rogers. Daryl Slusher and Beverly Griffith voted against the zoning plan, and other members who approved it on first reading only said they would not give final approval until more changes were made. Six votes are needed to pass the plan because a valid petition has been filed against it by the neighborhood.

As for the incentive deal, council members refused to even consider it until an indefinite date. Rogers says the Guadalupe neighborhood considers the city's offer to subsidize Riata's development an insult, saying it's essentially an effort to rescue the buyers who bought the land for far too much money back in the Eighties from a bad investment. It's certainly not lost on the neighbors that, based on the latest Bennett tract appraisals, the city could buy the property outright for far less than the proposed $23 million in incentives. That wouldn't satisfy local church leaders, of course, who from the start have hoped for a significant commercial investment on the site, but judging from the grim mood on Thursday, that option may look increasingly appealing.

Council will bounce through a light meeting this week before the Bennett tract and City Hall decisions come back later this month. Council is scheduled to vote on a long list of transportation projects -- including an extension of the Lamar Pedestrian Bridge and right-of-way acquisition for the MoPac North extension -- to be funded through the $78.5 million Capital Metro windfall.

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City Hall, Antoine Predock, Computer Sciences Corporation, Will Wynn, Bennett Tract, Riata Development Corp., Matt Mathias, Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, Mark Rogers, Raul Alvarez, Danny Thomas, Daryl Slusher, Beverly Griffith

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