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Design Commissions reviews plans for Downtown office high rise

Tuesday, April 24, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

The Design Commission has some inviolable rules, and plans for the new 30-story high-rise office tower at Third and Colorado appear to violate several of them.


Third and Colorado, if it is built, would be the first office tower to go up in Austin since the Frost Bank Tower. It replaces plans that developer Hickson Properties had to build an upscale boutique hotel on the site. Now, with the help of Cousins Properties, a quarter of a block sandwiched between Sullivan’s Steakhouse and Spaghetti Warehouse could turn into one of Austin’s taller towers.


Attorney Steve Drenner of Winstead PC, who addressed the Design Commission first on Monday, said the new proposal would require some adjustments in concessions to the developers, including increased floor-to-area ratio and above-ground parking.


Architect Steve Bell of Kendall/Heaton Associates walked the Design Commission through the major design principles of the project: its strong interactive presence on the ground floor with retail and lobby; the use of glass to encase a 13-story parking garage and keep all four faces consistent or what Bell called “working in all four directions;” and strong horizontal design elements at both 18 and 24 feet that nod to the height of surrounding buildings.


“I would describe this as almost a cubist sculpture, with parts, components and pieces that come together in a composition that is reinforced in each elevation,” Bell said.


Where the sidewalks narrowed, Bell even pulled back the edge of the building, making sure to create a wider passageway for tables and trees. The ground floor is wrapped in warm-colored limestone and terra cotta tiles.


Commissioner Juan Cotera jumped in with some of the first criticism, noting the commission’s strong commitment to underground parking, which Bell called impractical given the smaller footprint of the building.


“I feel that many times we’re taking some of the most marketable office space in the city and putting parking in there,” Cotera said. “We don’t take into consideration the cost of losing that space as an element in our decision. This is space that’s going to be around for 50 years or more.”


Bell said that 13 levels underground certainly did not make sense with Austin’s water table. He noted the design of a Japanese museum that required seven levels of underground parking. The seventh level was so far down into the water table that it had to be weighted with 15 feet of concrete so as to not float away.


Commissioners Hope Housbrouck and Evan Taniguchi had concerns about building orientation. Housbrouck noted that some of the most active space on the first floor was on the west side, in the warmest part of the building. Concerns also were raised about needing more usable space and less lobby space near the intersection of Third Street and Colorado, a focal point of the building.


Cotera did also try to throw in some praise for the design of the structure.


“I like very much you used 80 percent of the ground floor for retail and lobby space,” Cotera said. “That’s excellent. I think you did quite well with that.”


Bell said that swapping or flipping uses on the sides of the building – for instance, putting the lobby on the less traveled street – would be difficult given the way elevators and hallways are placed in the interior structure of the building.


The Downtown Commission already has heard the Third and Colorado case. Zoning changes will go to Planning Commission and then on to Council. As for the Design Commission, commissioners decided to outline an immediate four-point letter with concerns rather than sending it off to a work group for discussion.


Concerns raised by the commission included:


  • Consideration of the use of at least some below ground parking in the project;
  • Creation of a plaza that included both a pedestrian area and plaza space;
  • Study the intersection of pedestrian and vehicular traffic at the garage entry; and
  • Shifting more retail toward the intersection of Colorado and Third streets.

Developers have just entered the design phase. If the 390,000-square-foot project receives approval from Council, construction on the project would begin by the end of the year.

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