Concordia Moving Plans
The little Lutheran school along I-35 is relocating, and a large mixed-use development is slated to take its place
By Wells Dunbar, Fri., July 14, 2006
The decision isn't exactly new: In May 2005, Concordia's board of regents announced its intent to move to a larger campus. More than a year later, the board has nearly finalized the purchase of the Schlumberger oil company's old research campus in Northwest Austin, within the lush Balcones Canyon Preserve. Rechristened as the Austin Hill Country Reserve, the Schlumberger campus served as R&D headquarters before the company's move to Houston; Concordia plans to renovate and approximately double the site's 195,000 square feet of infrastructure. The Lutheran university is also eager to build sports fields and facilities, which it doesn't have the space for today. "This is a 22-plus-acre piece of land," says Concordia spokesman Don Adam of the current campus. "We don't have the room."
Additionally, the largely tuition-funded university's diminutive size limits revenue, Adam says. "It's been a tremendous blessing, this site," he says, but the university simply needs more space to "carry on the mission and ministry we're charged with."
On a different mission is the East Avenue Town Center, the mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly project envisioned on the Concordia site. Reminiscent of downtown's Second Street district, developers East Avenue IG plan residential space in the form of apartments and condos, as well as shopping and restaurants, office space (expected to cater to nearby St. David's Hospital), a small luxury hotel, and possibly an Olympic swimming facility. The ambitious undertaking won't come cheap; the real estate alone is estimated at more than $80 million, to say nothing of development costs for the site. To recoup their costs, East Avenue IG hopes to build big, with the tallest of five planned towers coming in at 295 feet. Under the company's stair-stepped design, the tallest tower would sit at the plot's southern end, along the interstate, with buildings decreasing in height as they head from the highway toward Red River. Done correctly, it's thought the taller, outlying buildings could insulate neighbors from the highway's sound and stretch high enough to rise above the noise.
Neighborhood groups are realistic but cautious, ready for something taller than the quiet campus, but uncomfortable with the higher end of proposals. Dana Twombly, president of the Eastwoods Neighborhood Association, says she agrees with the mixed-use concept but hopes to reach a consensus with East Avenue for less height. Hancock Neighbordhood Association President Burt Watley is similarly taking a middle-of-the-road approach, while his association develops a formal proposal on height allowance. While difficult to pin down, it's thought the groups feel comfortable with height in the 120- to 180-foot range.
Despite the neighborhood's conditional acquiescence, City Council might be harder to convince. At council's June 22 meeting, density-friendly Brewster McCracken led the dais in denying additional height to a similar residential development planned along I-35 at Riverside. Proposing a cut from 190 to 120 feet, McCracken warned that "height does not necessarily mean density, and in this case, I'm concerned about bringing this type of building out of the downtown area."
There's time to resolve the height question, as well as other design and tenant considerations: The development can't begin until Concordia is completely moved out, which won't be until 2008. "It's a little different than a weekend move," Adam says.
Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.