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Mixed-use options considered for future of police HQ site downtown

Monday, December 20, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

Planners see a variety of possibilities for the eventual redevelopment of the Austin Police Department headquarters site downtown, with office space, affordable housing, retail, an event space and recording studio among the possible uses.

Those were some of the ideas discussed during a recent competition organized by Urban Land Institute Austin, which organizes local development and real estate professionals around issues of local interest. As part of ULI’s annual Battle of the Plans contest, two teams of young professionals created proposals for how to reuse the site at Eighth Street and Interstate 35 that has served as the base of police operations since 1982.

Currently the city is considering its options for how and where to eventually relocate APD headquarters, which will eventually allow for redevelopment of the 2.7-acre site that is located among some of the most desirable commercial and cultural districts in the city. Earlier this year, the Downtown Commission received an update from the city’s Office of Real Estate Services about the progress on determining the size and possible location options for the new headquarters.

In describing the site, engineer Jordan Cook with the Structures engineering firm said the variety of neighboring planning and public works projects offer many competing interests for how to use the APD location.

“This site comes with its own challenges and opportunities … one of those is intersecting Capitol view corridors, opportunity for development within the Red River Cultural District, the Palm District down south, and Innovation District up north,” he said. “On top of it they have to work around the (Austin Resource Center for the Homeless) as well as some of the satellite businesses and clinics that are around the area, and because it’s up against Waller Creek a lot of the plans had to work with floodplain issues and consider the Waterloo Greenway’s plans. There was also TxDOT’s cap-and-stitch plan for I-35, as well as the expansion of the Austin Convention Center, which brings with it a transportation hub.”

The two mixed-use plans considered last week by ULI judges were limited to 135 feet, or 10 stories, by Capitol View Corridor considerations.

The first proposal was a $200 million project that included ground-floor retail, two floors of affordable housing covered by tax credits worth $20 million, a recording studio and city-owned event space, 400 parking spaces, and five floors of market-rate office space. Elle Rich with Gehan Homes said her team wanted to emphasize the importance of the nearby Red River Cultural District while offering opportunities to bring different communities together.

“As it stands now at the intersection of I-35 and Eighth Street, the site has always been thought of as a barrier between East Austin and West Austin, so we really wanted to integrate the site as place of activation to galvanize community members and form a bridgeway between east and west,” she said. “Given the social context of the Austin Police Department and recent history with protests in 2020, we wanted to rebrand and reposition it as a place to bring the community together.”

The competing project, known as Swante in recognition of early Austin immigration leader Swante Palm, called for 266 multifamily units with more than 100 of those priced at affordable levels. The plan also called for 75,000 square feet of retail, 20,000 square feet of office space, and an event space on the top floor.

At a cost of $385 per square foot, the Swante project called for a developer to buy the site from the city and use three different tax credit programs to secure $14 million in upfront financing, which would also allow for the creation of a $2.5 million program to help assist minority-owned businesses to open there.

Bryce Bash, an associate with Hawkeye Partners, said his team wanted to celebrate the culture that once thrived in the area but was lost after decades of poor planning.

“Since the construction of I-35 in the mid-1900s, you saw the Palm District isolated from the East Austin community and that led to the loss of some of the culture that once thrived there,” he said. “Today we see several issues that district faces, including affordability, walkability, maintained and integrated public land, and projects that are intended to celebrate the cultural and historical significance of the region.”

Photo by WhisperToMe [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

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