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How do Austin’s Capitol view corridors preserve sights of the Statehouse?

Friday, February 2, 2018 by Syeda Hasan

About seven years ago, Lynn Meredith and her husband moved into a high-rise downtown. Meredith can see the state Capitol from her building, and over the years, she’s watched as new skyscrapers have sprung up around the Capitol, while some other construction plans have fallen through.

“Since we are downtown residents and we are interested in our views as well as our new skyline, it was just a question of why do some get approved and some not get approved,” Meredith said. “And what does it mean to be in a view corridor of the Capitol building?”

Meredith also wondered why the height restrictions on buildings don’t apply to other parts of Austin.

Capitol History

Construction on the Texas state Capitol was completed in 1888. Its exterior was built of red granite from Burnet County, the walls inside made of Texas limestone. The Goddess of Liberty statue was placed at the top of the Capitol dome. At the time, it was the tallest building in town. When it was dedicated, crowds of Texans lined Congress Avenue to get a glimpse of the completed Capitol.

Decades later, new buildings changed the makeup of the city’s skyline. Some residents worried that views of the Capitol would be lost to a growing concrete jungle.

In the 1960s, the 26-story Westgate Tower was built near the Capitol grounds. It was significantly taller than any other apartment building in town. The project sparked controversy and eventually led to the adoption of the Capitol view corridors. In 1983, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, who was then a state senator, wrote the bill to protect views of the Capitol.

“In a much smaller town, in the 80s, we recognized there was a problem here,” Doggett said. “I think we could never envision how much Austin would grow and how tall these buildings would become around it, but I’m glad we laid a good foundation, not only for the city’s future development, but for the preservation of something that’s really important.”

Around the same time, the city of Austin enacted similar regulations. Together, the city and state rules aim to preserve the Statehouse’s visibility by limiting the height of other buildings within a corridor.

Local Regulations

“Basically, a Capitol view corridor is a plane that extends from a defined viewpoint or points that extends to the base of the Capitol dome,” said Anaiah Johnson, a senior planner with Austin’s Development Services Department.

If we count all of the views protected by both the city and the state, there are 35 Capitol view corridors today. Johnson said there are a number of factors that help determine which corridors get adopted. For example, is a particular view only accessible to pedestrians or drivers? Does the view of the Capitol stretch on, or is it just a passing glimpse?

“So there are those little nuances with each of the different corridors,” he said.

If you look at a map of Austin’s Capitol view corridors, you’ll notice that some – like the University of Texas South Mall corridor – stop after just a few city blocks, while others stretch on for miles.

“So for instance, there’s one corridor that’s extremely long,” said Scott Grantham, a senior planner with the Planning and Zoning Department. “At some point, (City) Council determined that that was a valuable corridor, so therefore, it was adopted.”

Shaping Development

That conversation didn’t stop in the 80s. Just last year, City Council Member Ora Houston proposed adding five new corridors, protecting views from East Austin. Scott Grantham said the feasibility of those new corridors is still being reviewed. It’s an issue local stakeholders are watching closely.

John Donisi is on the board of the nonprofit Preservation Austin.

“It’s interesting because most of the discussion has not been about adding more,” Donisi said. “It’s been about restricting them, and of course, we’ve worked to preserve what we have, and we’re not the only city that has some sort of protections in place.”

Washington, D.C., protects views of the U.S. Capitol. Denver’s view planes preserve the visibility of the Rocky Mountains. Donisi said rather than prohibiting development, Austin’s height restrictions have driven construction to other parts of downtown, outside the view corridors.

“The way that the view corridors have been structured in Austin is really an elegant solution to this vexing problem,” he said. “It has allowed for full and robust development in certain places where we want it to be, but it’s also preserved these really iconic and special views of the Capitol.”

There have been a few exceptions granted, including for the Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium and the city’s East 11th and 12th Streets Redevelopment Program and at the Robert Mueller Municipal Airport location. But mostly, developers have to find ways to work around the height limits that affect some of the city’s hottest real estate.

“When you look at a lot of the buildings and landmarks around Austin, it definitely forces architects to be a little creative,” said Geoffrey Tahuahua with the Real Estate Council of Austin.

He said determining whether or not a development falls within a corridor is pretty simple, but it’s led to some strange design trends.

“Especially our main corridors like Congress Avenue or Lamar, you’ll see a number of buildings that kind of look a little out of shape, if you will, and definitely look like they had to make some adjustments,” he said.

Essentially, the corridors have led to a lot of oddly shaped buildings in the heart of downtown. It’s not uncommon to see one half of a building stop after just a few stories, while the other half unencumbered by view corridors  is a towering skyscraper.

Lynn Meredith said as much as the city and state governments tend to clash, she was surprised to learn that they’d struck a sort of compromise around this issue.

“I had no idea,” Meredith said. “Having a view of the Capitol from everywhere in our city is such a magnificent thing, and I’m glad that there are some protections for view corridors.”

This story has been corrected. It orginially stated that there is a capitol view corridor that extends to the 360 Bridge (also known as Pennybacker Bridge), but that is not the case.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT. Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT.

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