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Design Commission takes active role in design of city projects

Monday, May 4, 2009 by Austin Monitor

The Design Commission is beginning to take a more active role in shaping the design of city projects. This week, the commission looked at plans for a new Austin Energy campus, and Chair Richard Weiss suggested all projects in the urban core and along the core transit corridors be presented to Design Commission. If given a list of projects, the Design Commission could pick and choose what might be controversial.

Commissioners have taken a special interest in the proposed Austin Energy System Control Center, worried that a “fortress-like” design for the utility’s new campus would discourage nearby residential development.

Betty Trent made a thorough presentation at Monday night’s Design Commission meeting, walking commissioners through various aspects of the project, both exterior and interior. The project is located in a light industrial area on Montopolis Avenue between Riverside Drive and Ben White Boulevard.

The Design Commission doesn’t usually consider cases like this. The majority of the commission’s cases involve downtown projects, almost always built from the ground up and often with the need for exceptions or variances. In this case, the Design Commission was looking at a city utility campus project, far from downtown, and using an existing building shell for its own purposes.

City projects always have been a sensitive point with the Design Commission. Most city plans are not brought to the commission until well into the design phase, giving the commission little say on improving the look or feel of such a project. The parking garage for the Long Center would be an example of just such a project. The commission was vehemently opposed to the design, but the commission was not consulted on the look and feel of the city-owned parking garage.

Austin Energy, however, did make an attempt to discuss its new energy control center with the commission on Monday night, which will be the conversion of an existing abandoned high-tech campus. The exterior of the current buildings on Montopolis Avenue would remain virtually unchanged, while Austin Energy would convert the interior space of the buildings to serve the energy utility’s purposes.

Some nearby vacant property, however, could eventually be developed for residential use, and the Design Commission was concerned the Austin Energy campus might discourage that.  Commissioner James Shieh focused on how the campus looked from the outside. Would this campus be too imposing for a residential area?

It will be a delicate balance for Austin Energy to consider. As Trent noted, it’s not Austin Energy’s goal to encourage a pedestrian-oriented use of the site, as it would be for a typical downtown project. Still, the Design Commission wanted to make sure the site would not be so imposing as to discourage surrounding development.

That led to a discussion of trees and streetscape at Monday night’s meeting, as well as how the Austin Energy project would look from the street. Trent noted it should look no different than it does right now – the basic corporate campus with limited access — although security on such a campus is expected to be high.

At Monday night’s meeting, commissioners noted it was not the Design Commission’s intention to suggest excessive standards. Instead, the discussion was about how the campus could present the right message. That included ornamental fencing on the property, as well as the placement of trees along the fence line. Commissioners discussed the use of space between the parking lot and sidewalk.

The Design Commission continues to ask for a bigger role in city projects. At Monday night’s meeting, Commissioner Juan Cotera talked about an Austin Energy substation on North Lamar that had a significant impact on surrounding area, an impact that could have been mitigated by a discussion with the Design Commission.

Planner George Adams told the Design Commission that all city projects could be fed through the commission for comment, which is not exactly what Cotera envisioned. Cotera said not all Austin Energy substations are going to be of interest to the Design Commission, but there are some that should be considered and reviewed.

Adams said he would consult with the city’s Public Works Department to compile a list of relevant projects. That list could easily be presented to the Design Commission to pick and choose which projects might be significant.

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