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Backers reveal 26-story hotel planned for 4th and Congress

Thursday, January 20, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

Promoters are taking a second stab at a mid-block Congress Avenue high-rise, saying they want to incorporate its historic façade into its final product.


The property, 416 Congress Avenue, is a project without a developer or a brand, but as agent Mike McHone told the Downtown Commission last night, where there’s a will there’s a way when it comes to navigating downtown development.


“We’ve been trying to sell thin air, but we haven’t had much success,” McHone joked when asked whether the project carried a name brand yet.


So McHone has cobbled together a team, which includes the property owners and Dick Clark Architects, to create a 130-room quasi-historic boutique hotel.


Don’t think small. The property at 416 Congress is 46 feet wide and 160 feet deep. Once setbacks and stepbacks are incorporated, the tower behind the 1893-era historic façade will be a full 26 stories tall, with each face plate containing only seven rooms, due to the limited mid-block width of the property.


How would this 338-foot tower compare to the surrounding properties? Across the street is the 33-story Frost Bank tower. To the north of the Frost Bank tower is the 26-story Bank of America Building. South of the Frost Tower is the 22-story 301 Congress building and up Fifth Street is the 21-story Chase Tower. All were indicated on a map McHone handed out to commission members.


McHone is going against the grain with his downtown project. He’s actually seeking historic zoning for the original James H Robertson Building, which was restored in 1985 and still appears to maintain much of its historic fabric. That would make the eventual project a rather unusual CURE-H footprint.


Beyond historic zoning, McHone will seek a curb modification to turn parallel parking into a valet parking slot and, most importantly, wants to bump the CBD zoning up to CURE in order to increase floor-to-area ratio from 8-to-1 to 13-to-1.


The project will use much of the original building for meeting rooms and ballroom space. Then, at the fourth floor, the project will step back 20 feet off Congress Avenue to create a green roof terrace bar. Above that, the tower, Floors 5 through 26, would be stepped back 60 feet from the street. Hence, the needle-thin floor plate, which would create the seven rooms per floor.


It was impossible for Downtown Commission members not to contrast 416 Congress to the proposed 909 Congress project (In Fact Daily, Aug. 26, 2010 ), which went down in flames after a round of harsh criticism at various boards. But most of the comments were favorable, even from Daniel Leary, who will hear the case at the Historic Landmark Commission on Monday night.


Questions from commissioners, however, kept returning to the question of parking. McHone sold the valet parking as a 24-hour service, open to all who used Congress, that could provide “eyes on the streets” at all times.


Commissioners still had plenty of questions: How would the hotel handle queued cars? How many spaces were available? Had the hotel rented any additional surface lots or parking garages in the area for a property that appeared ready to serve more than 100 guests a night but seemed to have no visible parking.


Architect Jeff Krolicki, who made the presentation with McHone, noted that the building’s downtown location meant it only had to guarantee 28 spaces.


“We’re only required to provide 20 percent of the required parking,” Krolicki said. “Historic buildings are grandfathered when it comes to providing parking for the guests. Our parking for the guests is going to be driven by need, not code.”


Asked by a commissioner how urban rail, possibly down the middle of Congress Avenue in the downtown plan, might impact the hotel, McHone said he could only view such a change in a positive light.

“We look forward to that,” McHone said. “Becoming more of a boutique hotel means the hotel will be well served by urban rail, and we look forward to the day when Congress Avenue is all a pedestrian street.”


Commissioner Stan Haas contrasted the two Congress Avenue projects and found 416 Congress superior because of its setbacks from the buildings on either side of it. On the south side, the gap between buildings will be five feet, and on the north side, where a wall is shared, it will become two feet.


Asked by Commissioner Robert Knight whether the hotel developer would be upset if a neighbor on one side of the hotel decided to build its own tower, Krolicki seemed unfazed. The question is a key one in the downtown plan, which must determine how to accommodate mid-block density without impinging on the rights and values of other buildings on a single block on Congress.


“Maybe we’d be worried, one day, when Austin is Hong Kong,” Krolicki said.


The only current use of the structure is as the Sky Lounge, meaning it currently is being used only two nights a week.


The commission gave its unanimous seal of approval to the project, with Chair Mandy Dealey abstaining. Dealey serves on the Planning Commission, which must make its own recommendation on the case.

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