Austin at Large: Life Beyond the Cop Shop?

ULI-Austin members craft hypothetical – but plausible – visions for APD’s unloved HQ

The APD headquarters complex (Courtesy of ULI Austin)

Flashback time to ye olde Ninedeez, when – just like 10-1 and Project Connect and building a new airport and redeveloping the old one – the creation of a new Austin City Hall had become a saga of novelistic complexity: Do we need one? How big? Where? Whose project can we attach it to, or replace with it? This went on for years, and at some midstream point, this reporter asked the late Gus Garcia (then mayor pro tem), "Why not put it on Waller Creek? You already have APD and the Avante Building [today's Waller Creek Center, the headquarters of Austin Water]. You could build it in between."

Every inch the gentleman, Gus did not say out loud that I should stop hitting myself with the stupid stick, but he must have thought it. Instead, he briskly ticked off every possible reason why this was not, in his mind, a viable option: It floods. Waller Creek is gross. It's right next to the Salvation Army. And I-35. We can't control what gets built around it. It's under four or five Capitol View Corridors. It's too close to Sixth Street. Did I say it floods? And really, who wants to be right next to APD?

This all came to mind as I viewed the two proposals crafted, and presented last week, by teams of younger members of the Austin chapter of the Urban Land Institute, competing in the latest edition of its "Battle of the Plans" program. The site to be transformed? The Austin Police Department headquarters on Eighth Street. What constraints make this a challenging exercise? Basically everything Gus Garcia, who died in 2018, laid out 25 years ago, with a few intervening twists.

And $300 Million, At Least

Gus, who would ascend to the mayor's chair in 2001 in the wake of 9/11, lived long enough to see the substantial transformation of Downtown Austin from the semi-dereliction of the mid-Nineties and prior. This stretch of Downtown's northeast quadrant, though, has remained remarkably resistant to getting its glow-up. It's not for a lack of trying; we, as taxpayers, spent $120 million or so on the Waller Creek flood control tunnel and will spend a few million more on supporting the largely privately funded Waterloo Greenway. The Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, which opened in 2004 and was intended, somewhat wishfully, to improve upon the street- and creek-level conditions for the unsheltered in this area, has also cost us many millions, some percentage of which can be broken out as public space management, needed to make ULI-Austin's framing of APD HQ as a site "ripe for rejuvenation" more plausible. Even I did my part, as one member of the ad hoc project team (the I-35 Makeover Coalition) that brought you the Brontosaurus Bridge, for which we held a snap design competition not unlike Battle of the Plans.

What no amount of city investment heretofore can fix, though, is the devaluing effect of the stupid and oppressive Capitol View Corridors and the ever-ambiguous vision for I-35 that could either greatly enhance this "East and West Austin gateway site," as one of the ULI teams described it, or completely destroy it. Those things, as much or more than the condition of Waller Creek, have weighed down plans to reboot Downtown's northeast, except on the few blocks that the view corridors have left unspared, such as the old Brackenridge Hospital campus. They are indeed why low-margin uses like Red River's indie bars or social services agencies clustered here in the first place.

The APD HQ property is 2.75 acres in a Downtown where developers have erected towers far taller than anything that loomed over the Watson/Garcia mayoralties at the turn of the century on scraps of land one-fifth that size. But because of the aforementioned constraints, this site, valued at $21.5 million, was visioned-up and costed-out by the ULI Young Professionals as a 10-story building. No amount of creativity, industry skill, or even greed and avarice can get free of the dead hand of the Goddess of Liberty, showing Austin's who's boss around here.

History Happened Here!

One of the ULI teams opted to call its project the Austin Public District (see, APD still, clever) and the other went with Swante, as in Sir Swante Palm, namesake of the park and school a few blocks south of APD HQ, leader of the Swedish community that 150 years ago made the Waller Creek corridor its home. Both teams, who only had a month to develop their hypothetical proposals as if the city and Waterloo Greenway had issued an actual RFP, quickly and fully committed large chunks of their compounds to 100% affordable housing, the cost of which is offset by the stylish Swante with market-rate units, and in the Public District vision with office space. Both also went with amenities targeted to the corridor – event venue spaces, recording and artists' studios, a ground-floor food hall to feed the Greenway tourists. And both made their pro formas work, though not without effort, to deliver a $200-ish million project, should anyone want it.

Which someone might! The impetus for this competition was sparked more than a year ago, when then-Council Member Jimmy Flannigan added a provision to explore APD HQ redevelopment to the Council f-da-police omnibus resolution after the cops shot up Black Lives Matter protests outside their door. The meaning there was more explicitly burn this place down than ripe for rejuvenation, and the political and historical significance of a conscious and symbolic effort to kick APD out of Downtown was not lost on either team. The official city position, as ULI-Austin describes it: "Although the building has been home to Austin's police department for nearly 40 years, the city will consider proposals for the redevelopment of the property as part of [its] periodic realignment of municipal facilities."

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