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Staff overrules Design Commission on downtown tower

Monday, February 26, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

A controversial downtown tower is moving forward despite the Design Commission’s declaration that it violates the city’s urban design guidelines.

The project at 405 Colorado St. would replace a surface parking lot with a 25-story structure with 13 levels of parking. The building would feature 11 floors of office space on top of 13 floors of parking. A 14th-floor “sky lobby” would separate the two uses.

Brandywine Realty Trust, the developer, has secured a density bonus for the project in order to increase the allowable floor area ratio from 8-to-1 up to 13-to-1. To achieve the bonus, Brandywine promised to provide Great Streets improvements on surrounding sidewalks and achieve at least a two-star rating under Austin Energy’s Green Building Program.

Last May, the Design Commission voted unanimously to declare that the project plans fall short of the city’s urban design guidelines, another requirement necessary to qualify for the density bonus.

The commission held that a higher number of floors dedicated to car storage rather than habitable space is not an appropriate increase of density envisioned by the guidelines.

However, last month, Austin Planning Director Greg Guernsey and senior planner Anne Milne told the commission that, technically, there is nothing out of compliance in the plans.

“It might not be the type of dense development that we would want in a vibrant, busy downtown,” Milne explained. “But they’re taking a straight parking lot and creating a 30-something-story building. So objectively, yes, it’s creating dense development.”

Nonetheless, Commissioner Evan Taniguchi insisted on airing his disapproval.

“I don’t think density bonus should be given to add more cars or have a huge parking garage,” he said, pointing out that it will contribute to more traffic in the area.

The city’s traffic impact analysis determined that the 240,000 square feet of office space and a planned ground-floor restaurant will lead to an extra 2,880 car trips per day.

Milne told the commission that the density bonus program cannot be used to govern how a given developer uses their land.

“These people are making this investment because they think it’s going to pay off,” Milne explained. “If they don’t have the incentive to build parking garages because our transit is so good, then that becomes less of an issue. But to say, ‘We don’t like parking, we want a different kind of downtown, so you can’t build your building,’ it’s just not fair to the applicant, when really we should be thinking about the system as a whole.”

Several commissioners expressed exasperation at being overruled by staff.

Commissioner Ben Luckens declared, “I think that that tells us as a board that these requirements are too weak.”

“Sometimes unfortunately as a voting body, the answer is no, and I think to take that away from us, that’s unfortunate,” Commissioner Samuel Franco added.

The project’s public parking component has won it the full support of the Downtown Austin Alliance, which last year released its comprehensive Downtown Austin Parking Strategy document.

Of the 530 new spaces at 405 Colorado, up to 250 could be made available to the general public during daytime hours, DAA President De Peart told the Austin Monitor. Outside of business hours, the entire facility could be used for downtown visitors, he said.

Peart said he sees no problem with building the massive garage just two blocks away from Republic Square Park, downtown’s busiest transit hub.

“We’ve got to have a mix of ways for people to get in and out of downtown,” he said.

Rendering courtesy of the city of Austin.

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