Perspectives On The Warehouse District – Part 1

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.”

About Jude Galligan

Jude Galligan, REALTOR-Principal of REATX Realty and publisher of Downtown Austin Blog (aka. "DAB"), spends his time matching remarkable people with remarkable properties in Austin’s urban core. A resident owner in downtown Austin, Jude serves on the Board of the Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA) and the City of Austin Downtown Commission. Contact Jude.

Comments

  1. By the way, that doesn’t change the fact that the VMU opt-in opt-out process was a fiasco in general; AC covered it extensively with a small bit of help from yours truly. Hyde Park and NUNA opted out essentially wholescale; Allandale mostly; Zilker, of course, was a joke.

    OWANA would have opted out had we not written in VMU-like standards into the neighborhood plan long before the ordinance came along.

    • Agreed about the process. If you read back through my Austin metblog entries you’ll see I was actually hoping that we would get some VMU development on S 1st, there are plenty of properties where it would make an interesting alternative. Never happened though, even those proposed developments put forward before the finance crash were not under VMU.
      http://austin.metblogs.com/author/triman/

  2. I’ll admit I hadn’t looked at BCNA’s application in particular – I had extrapolated from this coverage:

    http://austinzoning.typepad.com/austincontrarian/2007/12/zilkers-vmu-app.html

    without even noting that AC had given Bouldin kudos explicitly for being responsible. I apologize for the error. (Did you opt out of any of the other stuff like affordable housing rules or parking regulations?)

    • No we didn’t opt out of the affordable housing parking or anything related. In fact, despite my personal position and loss on the opt-outs, I spoke at City Hall when this came up and specifically challenged staff(if I recall correctly) on the subject of affordable housing. BCNA was very clear that we only wanted VMU by default if all VMU applications included the affordable housing requirement.

      • I kind of meant in the direction you went. IE, imposing more than the minimum affordable housing requirements (or parking requirements, as HP/NUNA did on the couple of properties they reluctantly failed to opt out) on potential VMU developers likely reduces possible future development of VMU units by some amount, so a true 100% VMU supporting application would just leave affordable housing (and parking) out of the equation entirely.

  3. M1EK, well I guess that depends on how you define lobbying, so let me tell you what actually happened with Bouldin Creek VMU, I was part of the 7-member Planning committee team.

    I, along with the Planning Secretary, walked(we actually biked some of it) S 1st, Oltorf, and the west side of S Congress to Barton Springs with a property map and a camera. I made a note of all the properties that I thought should be opted-out and why. I chose a few of the iconic buildings on S Congress and the small set back cottages on S 1st opposite the Texas School for the deaf. None on Oltorf and no other properties on S 1st. Others did the same on Barton Springs Rd.

    The iconic buildings on S Congress, well, just because they were. The small cottages on S 1st, because I felt they formed an important barrier between S 1st and downtown, the visual significance I felt was worth preserving rather than allow new multi-story VMU buildings to come within 15ft of the road thus changing the whole vista of that part of S 1st.

    We(the BCNA Planning team) then spent 4-consecutive Tuesday evenings reviewing the opt-outs. How was I supposed to know the chair of the committee lived in one of the small cottages…. ;-) The last week, the meeting was significantly enlarged to include the effected merchants from S Congress, we notified them specifically, so that we could explain our position and hear their opinions.

    As it turns out, the BCNA rules forbid most of them from the voting process. You had to have attended one meeting prior to the meeting you wanted to vote at, in order to be eligible to vote. This is standing BCNA process for all their meetings to avoid mob turnout at one meeting to derail a vote.

    When it looked like that would mean many on the committee, and others eligible to vote would abstain, forcing another meeting to be held at which the merchants could then vote, I proposed a compromise motion that effectively agreed that since the overwhelming majority would have voted against the opt-out, we should vote appropriately. That motion was formally seconded and carried and a vote held and rejected ALL opt-outs. Thus ALL PROPERTIES on the transport corridor routes within the neighborhood boundary WERE BY DEFAULT OPTED-IN TO VMU.

    I don’t know about Travis Heights, but I can categorically say that the BCNA never opted out ANY properties at the Planning or full Neighborhood association level.

  4. Mark, the reason VMU zoning did almost nothing is that the neighborhood associations (especially those down by you) lobbied for the ability to ‘opt out’ of a few tracts and then proceeded to opt out almost everywhere.

  5. Mark, the Warehouse District is definitely walkable. Much of it is also vibrant and charming. But it can be even more so. And, with density, it can help bring more of these attributes to the rest of downtown.

    John, surface parking lots are definitely not something we need more of downtown. But government placing artificial limits on height isn’t the way to combat that problem.

  6. Roger, define walkable. Isn’t the warehouse district already walkable? Do you mean a more diverse mix of stores, restaurants, bars and services than there is currently, making it a shorter walk for what you need? Or something else? Isn’t most of the warehouse district current lined with footpaths? In which case, all that is needed is a more vibrant retail mix downtown, not densification. But I suspect that you might argue, without the densification, you won’t get the people, without the people you won’t get retail diversification.

    Well perhaps DANA should have been lobbying Winn et all to apply some of the same tax breaks to downtown business development that they did up in the Domain. That horse has bolted now and the barn door is shut.

    I’m not against change per se, but the VMU zoning did almost nothing really on any of the major corridors, and I’m afraid you are right, too many of the lots in the Warehouse district will just fall to speculators with deep pockets and a long return in mind, and asset stripping will prevail.

    By the way, I’m not a nimby, it’s not my back yd as I live off S 1st.

  7. Density and change are fine if done well. My fear is that property owners will tear down existing properties and “bank” them while awaiting future development opportunities. There are already a lot of these properties around 4th street. Downtown’s attractiveness as a destination is threatened by poorly kept and ubiquitous surface parking where viable businesses and historic buildings once stood.

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