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Plans for 21c Museum Hotel apparently back on track

Monday, November 23, 2009 by Austin Monitor

Despite reports to the contrary, the 21c Museum Hotel does expect to break ground in the immediate future, landowner Perry Lorenz assured the Waller Creek Citizen Advisory Committee, promising a question-and-answer session at next month’s meeting.


Originally slated to break ground at the beginning of this year, the project had apparently stalled, leading some to presume it was dead in the water. At the last meeting, Commissioner Ellie McKinney said that the failure of the hotel to materialize then made it difficult for commissioners believe it ever would. The Hotel 21c was one of those projects that epitomized what the Design Commission wants to see downtown.


So it’s not surprising McKinney would long to see construction begin on the 21c Museum Hotel, based on an existing building in Louisville, Kentucky. The developer’s unique focus on art and commerce is viewed as a potential antidote to urban blight. In Austin, the proposed property would be a 200-room hotel, combined with a contemporary art museum, at the corner of Red River and Cesar Chavez.


“It’s alive and it’s well and it’s for real,” Lorenz said. “And it’s going to provide the beginnings of a pretty significant tax base for the city.”


The proposed location is, of course, the one-time Vignette site. The Vignette plans, touted by then-Mayor Kirk Watson, went belly up during the dot-com bust. In some ways, however, this new model for development seems more true to the current downtown anti-sprawl, high-density ideal.


More specifically, the 21c Museum Hotel would be the first project to contribute incremental value to the Waller Creek tax-increment financing district. Commissioners agreed to put the hotel on their Dec. 3 agenda.


After his comments during citizen communications, Lorenz said the developer had already committed a substantial amount of money to the project, including coming up with the preliminary design for the hotel. Now, almost a year after the original proposed groundbreaking, the developer intends to move forward.


Planner Erica Leak also gave an update on the IH-35 makeover project. Construction around the IH-35 overpass, near the Austin Police Department headquarters, should be completed by this time next year.


The makeover project, first proposed in 2005 and designed by Cotera + Reed Architects, is intended to provide an evocative show with lighted curved arches on either side of the freeway. These arches, which Leak referred to as “stitches,” are designed to symbolically span the divide between downtown and East Austin.


Commissioners expressed some concern that these lighting elements and the revamping of the existing parking lot under the freeway would eliminate 40 parking spots under the freeway deck, but Commissioner Ted Siff pointed out that it was appropriate that the city conform to its own standards.


“The same parking lot rules that apply to everyone else ought to apply to the city itself,” Siff told fellow commissioners. “For me, the equitable application of the law outweighs the fact we may be losing some needed parking spots.”


And in an update on the tunnel project, city planner Tonya Swartendruber provided some photographic examples of the Museum Reach in downtown San Antonio, noting specific details of the project, such as incorporating the infrastructure of the tunnel itself and the inclusion of public art in the new stretch of the River Walk.


“I think we’re leaps and bounds ahead of them,” Commissioner Jude Galligan observed. “I really want us to activate our own trail, to make it active.”


Swartendruber did add that her pictures of the Museum Reach were taken at 5pm on a Monday, a far different scene than on a weekend.


In another presentation to the commissioners, Gary Jackson provided a look at the new boathouse on the shores of Lady Bird Lake, which will accommodate the storage of boats as well as provide space for public events and a potential area for a for-profit vendor.


To provide screening between the boathouse and the new Four Seasons property, the city will be purchasing land from the Four Seasons at pre-development rates. Commissioners found that interesting, noting that the land could be sold and used, at a premium, for some other purpose once the proper buffer has been built.

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