Friday, September 24, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

Dilapidated Congress Avenue buildings move one step closer to reconstruction

After a yearslong saga, the owner of three run-down buildings at 907, 909 and 911 Congress Avenue will finally be able to reconstruct the buildings’ facades. 

On Sept. 14, the Planning Commission overruled a decision by the Historic Landmark Commission prohibiting facade reconstruction for 909 Congress, paving the way for all three buildings to be rebuilt. The buildings, which have varying degrees of historical merit, have sat in disrepair for years after multiple preservation and redevelopment proposals fell through. 

The poor condition of the buildings has led to complaints from nearby property owners. “It’s a shame that this is the gateway to the Capitol and this is what is seen,” said Julia Taylor, who represents 919 Congress. Many groups, including the Downtown Austin Alliance, support the reconstruction, as do city staffers. 

Beyond their unsightly appearance, the three buildings pose a hazard to anyone who enters them as well as passersby on Congress Avenue. This threat to public safety caused the Building and Standards Commission on March 24 to order the owner to make extensive repairs within 90 days or face fines. Since the HLC did not approve reconstruction, the owner is accruing fines of $1,000 a week per building.

“The applicant has an urgent need to address the Building and Standard Commission’s orders,” said Elizabeth Brummett with the city’s Historic Preservation Office.

The HLC’s rationale for denying the reconstruction boiled down to preservation methods. The HLC preferred to save the 909 Congress facade without rebuilding it, even though architect Donna Carter said it would be extremely challenging to do so. At the same meeting, the commission allowed 907 Congress to move forward with reconstruction, deeming its facade not salvageable. Both buildings are historic landmarks. Because 911 Congress is not a landmark, it does not need the HLC’s approval for reconstruction. 

The Planning Commission voted unanimously to allow the 909 Congress facade to be rebuilt. “It moves this project along,” Commissioner Robert Schneider said, noting that a proposed restrictive covenant requiring the facade to be rebuilt within three years ensures that the owner follows through.

This is just the latest installment in a series of attempts to improve the buildings over the past two decades. The HLC approved redevelopment proposals for all three buildings in 2006, 2015 and 2018, but plans fell through. The more recent proposals included an office tower behind the reconstructed facade.

Leah Bojo, representing the owner, said a tower similar to those proposed in the past is still in the works. But there are no concrete plans yet, “because we have been waiting to make sure we can go forward with the (facade reconstruction),” she said. Any tower proposal would stop by the HLC again before receiving final approval. Because the site is constrained by the Capitol Dominance Overlay, the tower could only be about 200 feet tall. 

With the end of the saga in sight, Commissioner Jeffrey Thompson aired his frustration with the fact that these buildings were left vacant on the city’s most prominent street. “I’m just mad,” Thompson said. “How did we have these buildings just fall apart for 30 or 40 years and nothing happened to them? If someone next door hadn’t complained, we might go another five years until they just fell over.” 

For solutions, Thompson turned to the city’s side of things. “I think we need to take a look at our code to see what’s wrong with that.” 

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Planning Commission: This commission addresses issues of land use as assigned to it by Austin's City Code. These include the abilities "[t]o make and amend a master plan, recommend approval or disapproval of proposed zoning changes and control land subdivision within neighborhood planning areas and submit, annually, a list of recommended capital improvements." It has sovereign authority, or the right to make final decisions on certain cases.

Congress Avenue: Congress Avenue is the central-most road in downtown Austin. It runs from the Texas State Capitol to Lady Bird Lake, where it turns into South Congress Avenue. It is also a historic district first listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

historic preservation: Official actions of a municipality such as the City of Austin taken to preserve structures with their jurisdiction. Preservation is often accompanied by a property tax exemption.

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