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Design commission underwhelmed by AMoA site proposal

Tuesday, March 25, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

“Tepid” might be the best word to describe the Design Commission’s response Monday to Pelli Clarke Pelli’s early design proposal for the Austin Museum of Art site between Third and  Fourth streets.


Connecticut-based Pelli Clarke Pelli has an impressive portfolio of bold skyscrapers, both in Texas and on the international stage, from the Four Leaf Towers and the headquarters of now-defunct Enron in downtown Houston to the towering Transbay Terminal Tower in San Francisco and the massive Beijing World Financial Center.


When Pelli Clarke Pelli does it, it is bold and big. The ambitious Transbay Transit Tower, for instance, will be the tallest skyscraper on the West Coast when it is completed.


The AMoA project will be a symbiotic relationship between a 19-story tower owned by Houston-based Hines Interests on San Antonio Street and the city’s art museum on Guadalupe. The scope is modest in scale by Pelli Clarke Pelli standards, but it is in the vein of many of the firm’s projects: an interior-lit glass and steel structure that would be hard to miss on the Austin skyline.


Still, the design did not win many fans on the Design Commission. Comments were consistent with many prior downtown projects: a desire to put hard corners down on the block to encourage pedestrian traffic; the placement of curb cuts and equipment; and how the nine-story parking garage would be disguised or hidden.


The one aspect of the project that probably was the initial concern – the interface of the block with Republic Square – was the aspect of the project that drew the fewest comments from the commissioners.


The block will be a combination of interlocking public and private space. For instance, the two uses will share a nine-story aboveground garage. Those leaving the garage will enter a common lobby that will serve both projects and will be staffed 24 hours a day.


Dividing the block in half, the western half would belong to the office tower, with a 19-story glass tower sitting on top of the garage. The eastern half of the property would be primarily the art museum’s space, albeit on a much smaller scale. The conjoining of the twin purposes means the 120-foot office tower will have a 60-foot setback on the park side, preserving light and air, said architect Bill Butler.


Butler presented the basics of the project, which will require no variances. While this means the architect does not need a letter of support from the Design Commission, Pelli Clarke Pelli’s design team was sitting in the back, furiously taking notes on the various comments from the commissioners.


The museum itself would be three large blocks of glass of varying sizes and heights. It is only 40,000 square feet – compared to 400,000 square feet of office space – and Commissioner Ellie McKinney worried aloud whether the scope of the tower would overpower the museum, which was intended to be a major city landmark. Most of the gallery space is shifted to the second floor of the museum to encourage the use of the first floor for various retail and public uses.


Among the other points made by commissioners:


The parking garage would be wrapped in glass, with first-floor retail use. Parking garages are the bane of the Design Commission and the commissioners encouraged underground parking. Butler said the block had subterranean water issues and some contamination from a former dry cleaner establishment on an adjacent block. Wouldn’t the developer be forced to clean up the block anyway? Juan Cotera asked. Only to the extent required, Butler told the commission.


Pelli Clarke Pelli has left the southeast and northeast corners of the block with limited development; in other words, soft edges. Commissioners prefer hard edges of activity. Commissioners Phil Reed and Joan Hyde encouraged Pelli Clarke Pelli to put something on those corners, even if it was only a temporary use. AMoA, at this point, would prefer a greenscape on the southeast corner, possibly with some sculpture.


The commissioners were most pleased with the space facing Republic Square. This will include a separate entrance to the museum, as well as a second-floor family activity space, in a cloak of glass, that will look out on Republic Square. AMoA would like to explore the use of the gallery’s roof as some of type of terrace space, Butler said.


Chair Girard Kinney noted that most east-west arterials downtown were oriented to pedestrian activity while north-south arterials carried more vehicle traffic. The museum has put some of its loading docks and electrical functions on the streets that ought to be focused primarily on encouraging pedestrian traffic, he said.

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