Downtown Austin is largely defined by its districts, unique destinations bound by similar geography and form. As it exists today the Warehouse District has significance as a cool place to visit, but it’s debatable if it has historic significance. Capital view corridors, which place height restrictions throughout the much of downtown, are conspicuously absent over the Warehouse District and the low-slung properties are worth a fortune. This brings up the discussion of should the Warehouse District be protected by landmarking the buildings.
ROMA has come up with an interesting solution. Property owners inside the Warehouse District are incentivized to sell their surplus density/air rights. This would allow property owners to capture the value of their building’s entitlements without changing the streetscape. City Council is scheduled to vote on this solution, as part of a larger density bonus program, on August 20th.
Two of downtown Austin’s most active and respected stakeholders, Roger Cauvin and Michael McGill, have divergent opinions on what they would like to see happen. They have graciously agreed to share their perspectives which I will publish in two parts.
From Roger Cauvin:
“While the Warehouse District is currently a great asset for downtown, I believe it can be an even greater asset if the city facilitates, and doesn’t obstruct, its densification.
Some of the sentiment for preserving the character and height of the Warehouse District stems from a reflexive resistance to change. In almost every mature neighborhood in Austin, long-time residents develop a fondness for the existing character of their neighborhood and fear that changes will disturb what they value about it. And new developments with sprawling parking lots and unimaginative designs lend credence to these fears. Nevertheless, these citizens give little consideration to the possibility that change can lead to neighborhoods that are more walkable, more vibrant, and more charming over time.
Downtown has usually been the exception to this rule. Downtown residents have generally embraced height and density. But downtown is not immune to resistance to change. As someone who grew fond of entertainment in the Warehouse District in the 1990s and has lived a block away for more than seven years, I myself fear the unknown – what will happen to it if it densifies?
Fortunately, observing the reflexive resistance to change in other neighborhoods has given me perspective. I know that I must put aside my fear of the unknown and realize that increased height and density in the Warehouse District will likely make it and the rest of downtown even more vibrant and even more walkable than it currently is. A greater concentration of residents and workers in the Warehouse District will increase the demand for, and viability of, pedestrian-oriented retail all over downtown. It’s important to recognize that the charm of the Warehouse District comes not just from its modest height, but its pedestrian orientation.
Former Mayor Wynn had a vision of 25,000 residents living downtown. He saw that radically increasing the number of downtown residents would yield many benefits to the core and to Austin as a whole. The Warehouse District is one of the few areas of downtown unencumbered by Capitol View Corridors. Restricting its height and densification would severely impact the potential for increasing the number of residents downtown to realize Mayor Wynn’s vision. Erecting barriers in an effort to preserve the height of the Warehouse District not only comes dangerously close to the NIMBY mindset pervasive in other neighborhoods; it also undermines the larger downtown vision that many of us share.”