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Downtown advocates concerned over Marriott’s plans for Great Streets

Monday, March 26, 2012 by Michael Kanin

Two downtown planning advocates expressed concern to Council members that hospitality giant Marriott International may not follow Great Streets design standards when it constructs the Austin version of its J.W. Marriott luxury hotel chain. Architect Girard Kinney, who played a role in designing the Great Streets criteria, brought his worries to Council Chambers on Thursday. Kinney’s appearance came on the heels of an email sent by architect Bart Whatley, who serves on the city’s Design Commission that explored similar issues.


Kinney expressed his concerns as Council members took up an issue that wasn’t directly connected to the Marriott construction project. Though his hands were tied by that circumstance, Council Member Chris Riley told Kinney and Whatley that their complaints had registered. “I share many concerns articulated by (Kinney) and expressed by others who have been in touch with us,” he said.


City Council approved the waiver of a hefty set of fees that cleared the way for the construction of the hotel in June, 2011. Though the action passed, it wasn’t without controversy, and, ultimately, Council Members Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo (as part of her first Council meeting) voted against the project.


The hotel will be constructed along Congress Avenue between Second and Third Streets. It will have 1,000 rooms. Second Street has been designated as a great street, with city officials planning for pedestrian-friendly facilities extending from the future redevelopment of the Seaholm Power Plant to the Convention Center.


Whatley sent his email to Mayor Lee Leffingwell and the rest of the Council at 8am on Thursday. In it, he illustrated his concern that the Marriott might interrupt the Great Streets design of Second Street. “A continuous pedestrian-oriented streetscape is not achieved with the automobile intensive drop-off proposed on Second Street by Marriott/White Lodging,” Whately wrote. “If the Marriott plan moves forward as designed, it will be the only project since streetscape standards have been adopted to completely change the nature of the street as a pedestrian oriented street typology.”


Kinney echoed that sentiment. “I am very, very concerned about this building,” he told Council Members. “It’s a nicely designed building – architecturally it will be very beautiful – but the problems here have to do with the way the site plan is arranged…and the fact that they are using Second Street, a pedestrian-oriented street – probably the most pedestrian-oriented street downtown – as their major vehicular entrance for this hotel.”


Tovo joined Riley in his concerns. She also suggested that a key feature of the hotel’s driveway might go against the city’s downtown plan. “It’s my understanding that the downtown plan really has language in there that says porte-cocheres should be prohibited on pedestrian-activity streets, of which Second Street is one,” she said.


A porte-cochere is a driveway protected by a roof that allows for covered drive-up access to a building. Marriott’s version of the feature would provide entry off of Second Street.


George Adams of the city’s Planning and Development Review office was left to defend the project. He told Tovo that the downtown plan hadn’t yet been approved when the Marriott project was designed. Tovo noted that the plan had been in draft form for some time before its approval – more or less implying that Marriott should have known better.


“One of the challenges with the site, and I think part of the reason for the location of the porte-cochere … (is that) the project has limited frontage on two of the four sides: On Congress Avenue and on Third Street,” Adams responded. “The location of the (project’s) tower (makes) it difficult to locate the porte-cochere on Brazos, which is something that the applicant has pointed out to staff. If you take all of those factors into consideration that leaves you with Second Street for the primary option.” 


Tovo did not respond to Adams’ statement.

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