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Could new downtown projects mean local economy is on the rebound?

Monday, October 5, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Maybe the first significant sign of an economic turnaround in Austin was the presentation of two major downtown projects before the Design Commission last week.


And maybe the strongest sign that many people aren’t quite sure that turnaround is for real is the fact that commissioners kept quizzing lawyers from Drenner & Golden Stuart Wolff about whether anyone could know if those projects would come to fruition.


Of the two projects, one is a hotel: the 250-room eco-luxury hotel slated for construction on the southwest corner of Fifth and Lavaca streets, in the warehouse district. The other will cobble together lots along Lavaca at 14th Street to comprise a mixed-use building dominated by offices instead of residential space.


At the Design Commission, as is typical, questions concerned streetscape, parking enclosures, and step-backs. The project at Fifth Street and Colorado steps back significantly from the alley, presenting a unified façade on Fifth Street instead of a step-back on all sides.


“I’d like to see a lot more of the Fifth Street side,” Commissioner Juan Cotera said. “One of our main concerns will be how the building addresses the street.”


Responding to questions, attorney Steve Drenner said the architect had made the conscious decision not to take a tiered-wedding-cake approach to the project. Given the constraints of the lot, he said, and the fact that it backs up to an alley, such an approach wouldn’t make a lot of sense.


Commissioners praised the project for its green emphasis. Commissioner James Shieh, in particular, praised the eco-friendly aspects of the project and talked about the availability of off-site parking in the area for those who visit the hotel.


New commission chair Bart Whatley was concerned about the timing of the demolition and leery about the possibility of demolishing a building if the proposed project did not come to fruition, as was the case with Las Manitas in 2008.


The demolition permit runs out in mid-November, Drenner said. The project will be in design for at least a year and under construction for two years. Drenner said he was open to any suggestions from the commission that might delay demolition.


“Certainly, based on our history in downtown, especially in the last four to five years, we understand that concern,” Drenner said. “We do hold a demolition permit right now … and our construction start would be in the fourth quarter 2010.”


A project review committee of Cotera, Whatley, and Jeannie Wiginton was appointed to review the hotel project. Drenner said the project would be going to the Downtown Commission in October and the Planning Commission in November.


Capitol Terrace, represented by attorney John Donisi, will piece together two lots on Lavaca Street and two on West 14th Street, creating a quarter block for construction. Most of the buildings, all owned by Palmco, are unoccupied. Mindy Montford used one of the buildings during her campaign for District Attorney.


Capitol Terrace, which is so close it sits in what is known as the Capitol Dominance Zone, will require a number of exceptions: an upzoning change from DMU to CBD in order to increase floor-to-area ratio from 5-to-1 to 8-to-1; a height variance from 120 feet to about 160 feet; and the ability to address compatibility issues with both the local Church of Christ Scientist and the student union of the First United Methodist Church.


Both churches have agreed to support the new construction. A small sliver of the property is also constrained because it sits in the Capitol View Corridor.


“The compatibility with the two churches puts a huge constraint on this tract,” Donisi told the commission during his brief presentation.


From a design standpoint, however, such a high FAR would create a dense building, and, like the hotel, it will have underground parking. It’s hard to construct anything in that space that doesn’t look like a box, Donisi told the commission, although the developer has included ground floor retail in his design, with a hard-corner full-service restaurant at 14th and Lavaca, as well as above-ground screened parking, a number of floors of office space, and 30 residential units on the building’s top floors.


That puts the property’s mix at 60 percent office, 30 percent residential, and 10 percent retail, Donisi estimated, making it the rare mixed-use project that is dominated by office space.


With fewer details to work with, the commission had fewer questions for Donisi. Cotera, in particular, was concerned about the screening of parking in the building and about the facades that make parking areas look nothing like parking areas. Both Cotera and Wiginton praised the new parking garage at St. Edwards University as an example of a proper-looking parking structure.


The developer of Capitol Terrace does not have a demolition permit yet. If all goes well, this project, too, could be under construction by the end of 2010, with a proposed end date coming sometime two years later.

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