Will Towering Condos Spring to City Approval?

Developers tout proposed high-rise as perfect fit for Downtown; neighbors aren't so sure

This illustration depicts what the Spring tower (outlined) would look like, imposed upon an aerial photo of the Sixth and Lamar area. Residents of the Old West Austin neighborhood, west of Lamar, question whether the building is too tall for what they consider a transition area between Downtown and their houses.
This illustration depicts what the Spring tower (outlined) would look like, imposed upon an aerial photo of the Sixth and Lamar area. Residents of the Old West Austin neighborhood, west of Lamar, question whether the building is too tall for what they consider a transition area between Downtown and their houses.

On Tuesday night, the city Zoning and Platting Commission gave a thumbs-up to the hotly debated Spring high-rise condominium project slated for Third and Bowie streets. The project now moves on to City Council, which must address – on the fly – critical questions that have been lurking throughout the city's downtown boom.

Last week, a special subcommittee of the ZAP, appointed by Commission Chair Betty Baker to ruminate on the issues raised by Spring, recommended a height limit for the tower of between 175 and 400 feet. (The project as proposed is 400 feet; the current height limit for the tract is 125 feet.) This was considered a victory for the foursome behind Spring – developers Perry Lorenz, Robert Barnstone, and Larry Warshaw, and property owner Diana Zuniga. This week, the full ZAP, on a 7-2 vote narrowed that range to between 250 and 350 feet, but still gave the project a more positive nod than seemed likely a month ago. But the residual qualms of Baker and other ZAPsters, along with the vocal objections of neighborhood foes, mean the road to high-rise living may not move so smoothly across the council dais.

That 400-foot height – which would make Spring one of Austin's tallest buildings – has attracted much attention and controversy, but both developers and detractors say there are other equally important issues at play. Spring – a tall but narrow project modeled after the "point towers" that dominate Vancouver, whose Downtown is home to more than 50,000 people – is only one of several residential high-rises, some even taller, already in the pipeline for downtown, with more under discussion as the urban-living craze shows few signs of abating. At this week's meeting, the ZAP also gave its blessing to the 538-foot Block 25 project, a high-rise residential tower proposed by Atlanta-based Novare Group and local developer Taylor Andrews, located between La Zona Rosa and the Austin Music Hall. Spring has generated far more controversy than other high-rises, however, because of its location – west of Shoal Creek and just east of Lamar, on the tiny parcel (about one-third of an acre) that's home to Tambaleo and Gallery Lombardi, and once housed the Electric Lounge. This is, depending on your perspective, either on or beyond the western edge of Downtown, and as such, either close to or already encroaching on the not-Downtown neighborhoods to the west and south.

The Old West Austin Neighborhood Association, supported by the Austin Neighborhoods Council, has been leading the charge against Spring. As OWANA leader (and ANA vice-president) Laura Morrison sees it, while the height is "the easiest issue to articulate in this case … neighbors on all sides of the central city are concerned about the extension of downtown into established neighborhoods, negating the buffers that have been established. Maintaining these transition areas is essential to the survival of the integrity of these neighborhoods." Morrison and the neighborhood association have urged the council to nix Spring, especially in light of the city's announced intentions to embark on a proper Downtown neighborhood plan before the end of the year.

The Third and Bowie parcel is zoned DMU ("downtown mixed-use"), a category created in the 1990s to define the "buffers" between wide-open central business district zoning and the garden-variety residential and commercial zoning in the low-rise, often historic, near-Downtown neighborhoods. The Spring team is seeking to add a CURE – "central/urban redevelopment" – overlay, another artifact of the early days of downtown renewal that aims to make it easier for perceived-as-worthy projects to alter the code's site standards.

The question, however, is whether the Spring parcel, despite its DMU zoning, really lies within a "transition zone." The site is isolated from the single-family core of OWANA, which largely lies north of Fifth Street, by several blocks of high-intensity commercial zoning around Sixth and Lamar – a retail node, anchored by the Whole Foods complex, that is generally understood as part of "Downtown" by many Austinites. Certainly, Downtown advocates – like the Downtown Austin Alliance and the Down-town Austin Neighborhood Association – are willing to claim Spring as their own and have supported the project, even though, as Morrison points out, the area lies beyond the boundaries of the alliance's taxing district.

Lorenz, who chairs the city's Downtown Commission, points out that while a 400-foot building on one-third of an acre certainly qualifies as "dense," a 225-unit apartment building in an area that already features several hundred thousand square feet of high-traffic retail and office space, as well as hundreds of existing and planned apartment units, is not a very "intense" use.

The Spring team has pitched the "point tower" model as a way to get more housing at less cost into the area where the city says it wants it. "The advantages of a tall, thin building ... outweigh any perceived problems with the height," Lorenz says. City Council, however, hasn't indicated when it plans on taking up the Spring case.

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