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Design Commission weighs in on Northeast police and courts building

Tuesday, October 26, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The Design Commission wants additional meetings with the architect on the new City of Austin Municipal Courts and Police Northeast Substation, intending to align the project, as much as possible, with current urban design standards.


The substation was approved as part of the 2006 bond issue. Last night, architect Betty Trent and project manager David Smythe-Macaulay were at the Design Commission to present schematics and some initial early elevations.


Trent might have thought the Design Commission review was cursory. As she noted, existing city design standards don’t apply to building renovations. APD’s Northeast Substation will be converted from a now-shuttered Home Depot at the intersection of Interstate 35 and St. John’s Avenue.


The Design Commission, of course, had other ideas. Trent noted in her presentation the site, if not the building, conformed to city design standards. It doubled the landscaping, made good use of a bus stop and plaza access and added green space that eventually will serve as a neighborhood park.


“I think we’re doing as much as we can within the budget that we have,” Trent told the commissioners at last night’s meeting. “We are meeting the guidelines for the site as an existing site.”


Building orientation, however, was a concern of the commission. Members of the Design Commission, and especially long-time Commissioner Juan Cotera, wanted more assurances that the architect had weighed the design guidelines in other parts of the city code, even if those guidelines were only preferences.


How did the site interface with the neighborhood? Did it reinforce the concept of a walkable community? And would the building face on St. John’s Avenue be inviting, or simply look like a brick wall facing the street?


Trent noted she was constrained by the existing building face, the limitations of the budget and the requirements of the building’s programming. For instance, about half the façade along St. John’s will need to accommodate a sally port, where prisoners will be taken into and out of the building. Given the circumstance, an inviting community-friendly facade would be unlikely.


On the other hand, Trent had worked with building users to provide as much access to the proposed green space on the east side of the building as possible, putting two entrances out onto the lawn. Smythe-Macaulay said the city was working with the Parks and Recreation Department to develop the space, possibly pulling down a fence on the property to allow open access.


“There will be access to this space here,” Smythe-Macaulay said. “And one day, with the help of PARD, it will be just one big, nice park.”


Schematics on the substation are complete, dividing the building into its police and court components. Cotera, however, wanted the team to return to the Design Commission during the design process, before the construction documents were issued. The design of the building should be completed by March.


Come back too late, Cotera said, and any changes the Design Commission might recommend would cost the city money.


“We’re assuming we’re going to see it again at another stage,” Cotera said of the schematics. “I’m a little concerned because we don’t have a site plan that shows us how (the building) addresses the neighborhood, which is basically what we’re most interested in here.”


What the commission decided, after the city team completed its presentation and left, was that the Northeast Substation case would provide a good test run for new documentation the commission had created for project submittal and review.


The revised documentation is intended to streamline the process, lay the groundwork for review letters and reduce the necessity for an applicant to appear repeatedly before the commission at every step in the process. Chair Bart Whatley said the chief concern was to make the process more efficient for the commission and more predictable for the applicants.


Modifications to the process would include providing applicants with clear design expectations before the applicant made an initial presentation. Upon presentations, the commission could decide to appoint, or not appoint, a three-member review team to meet with the applicant and discuss the project.


A specific standardized checklist would guide the review teams and inform the project review letter. The full commission would continue to approve the letters.


The commission should think carefully about how the process would work, Cotera said. In some people’s minds, shifting all the work to the review team, with limited commission review, would be considered taking power away from the larger committee. Whatley noted the intent to be efficient should not take away from the commission’s ability to be creative, especially on creative projects.


The commission agreed, unanimously, to use the substation as a test case for the new process, with the intent of refining or changing it where necessary.

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