Archives for August 2015

Convention Center Sprawl Gets Real

Convention Center Sprawl Gets Real

Last year we began tracking the City’s push to expand the Austin Convention Center.  Which is all well and good until they expressed interest in doing it by swallowing downtown blocks.

The City Council Economic Opportunity Committee is slated to receive an update on the Convention Center’s expansion plan on Monday Aug. 24 — according to the draft agenda

I and others will be interested to see if the briefing adds any clarity to City’s public plan to buy one of the last prime redevelopment sites along Cesar Chavez (Block 8) for the expansion. The real estate, in the southern shadow of the Four Seasons Residences west of the Convention Center, has no height restrictions.

austin-convention-center-expansion

News broke in July that White Lodging had acquired a land lease on the same property and proposed to build a hotel on the site. However, the development news — which appears to have been “placed” by White Lodging PR — is sparse on details.

How the two projects would actually marry seems very complex.  It would be a sophisticated negotiating move by White Lodging to make this play to entice the City Council to really put their foot on the gas and fast track a Convention Center expansion.

The CEO of White Lodging was quoted in the local paper as saying the company’s looks “forward to working collaboratively with the city to ensure this project complements, and hopefully expedites, the proposed convention center expansion.”

Anyone who has ever bought or sold a car or a puppy knows how to put the heat on by lobbing in another interested buyer/seller — even if they are half imaginary. I encourage our City Council to consider that their policy choices on this matter will forever impact the future of downtown Austin.

As my friend Marshall put it:

austin-hotels-convention-chicken-egg

City of Austin putting downtown real estate on the market

City of Austin putting downtown real estate on the market

I haven’t seen this hit the mainstream news yet, but a large 1.6-acre lot, with prime frontage along Waller Creek corridor and a potentially buried I-35 is on the market.  But, it’s future is uncertain.

The lot, at 408 North IH-35 between 4th and 5th Streets, is owned by the City of Austin. The city acquired it in 2010 as a staging area for Waller Creek Tunnel project.

City Lot Birds Eye

According to city records, staff said they will bring a viable bidder forward to Mayor and Council by the end of the year.  Current City procedure requires the approval by City Council of any sales of a fee-simple parcel after staff has successfully identified a willing and able purchaser. Under standard procedure, City Council is not involved in the development of bid criteria for proposers.

There is a rumor among downtown aficionados that the Austin Fire Department has been eyeing the parcel ever since the city bought it, as place to relocate the firehouse at Brush Square Park.

Despite being limited by a Capitol View Corridor in terms of how tall it could be, it could be tall enough for me to believe that a fire station would be a bone-headed, shortsighted use of the land!

Through tax increment financing (TIF), Austin has bonded out millions to pull a long corridor of downtown out of the Waller Creek floodplain, and won public approval to develop the Sabine Street Promenade – which runs adjacent to the lot for sale.

Further, the importance of a world-class project moving into this slot crystallizes when taken into context of the still-enduring vision by the community to cut and cap I-35. In June, TxDOT officially got behind the idea of depressing I-35 about 25 feet below the frontage road level throughout its downtown Austin stretch, from south of Cesar Chavez Street to north of 15th Street.

i35at5th

I’ll be keeping an eye on this site, and am at least excited that the RFP process required by the City should help make sure that whatever project lands here contributes to the Waller Creek evolution.

-Jude

A New Future For The Gilfillan House at 603 W 8th Street

A New Future For The Gilfillan House at 603 W 8th Street

The Gilfillan House at 603 West 8th Street is a 1905 structure that is on the National Register, a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark, and a City Landmark.  It’s tucked away in the northwest quadrant of downtown Austin, and the brand new luxury apartment building Seven towers over the historic structure. Located on the southwestern corner of 8th & Nueces, it has been a law office since the early 80’s.  It is currently zoned GO-H. The Gilfillan House is grand, but it’s seen better days.

The Gilfillan House-downtown-austin-real-estate-2-750

The historic Gilfillan House with the new Seven Apartments in the background

The site was most recently purchased in early June (with a note of almost $3.6MM), and the new ownership (headed up by Rene O. Campos – a real estate investor in Dallas) would like to zone it to DMU-H as part of a restoration of the historic structure. 

The much more flexible DMU-H rezoning would also allow the new owner to utilize the restored structure both for office use and for events such as weddings, receptions, business meetings, luncheons, fundraisers (among other things).  The owner’s representatives say that this type of flexibility would lend itself to more active uses of the site, and introducing more people to the historic structure (and fill in downtown Austin’s seeming increasing need for proper venue space).

Why is the Gilfillan House worth preserving and sharing, anyway?

A little research at the Austin History Center brought me to some interesting information:

This residence was constructed in 1905 for William L. Gilfillan (d 1932), one of the founders and directors of the Austin National Bank, designed by the prominent Austin architect Charles H. Page, Jr., the two-story brick home reflects a mixture of popular Pre-World War I architectural styles, including Mission Revival and the Prairie School.  In 1931, the home was purchased by Julius G. Knape, a Swedish stonemason and contractor.

Recorded Texas Historic Landmark – 1981

The Austin National Bank was founded in 1890 and built their second generation space at 507 Congress in 1895 (507 Congress doesn’t exist as an address anymore, it’s been absorbed).   The bank kept growing and relocating until its merger with First International Bancshares Inc in 1981.

Here’s a photograph of the 1895 location on Congress – designed by Charles H. Page.

Newning, Charles A., editor. Texas Industrial Review, Volume 01, Number 03, October, 1895, Book, October 1895; (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth39133/ : accessed August 05, 2015), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Austin History Center, Austin Public Library, Austin, Texas.

Newning, Charles A., editor. Texas Industrial Review, Volume 01, Number 03, October, 1895, Book, October 1895; (http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth39133/ : accessed August 05, 2015), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Austin History Center, Austin Public Library, Austin, Texas.

So, lots of history, with lots of Austin’s early movers and shakers. We believe that it’s worth preserving and celebrating many of these structures and all of their stories. And we tend to think integrating the history with a current use is often better than a restoration that creates a well-preserved, but unapproachable (and generally unappreciated and unutilized) time-capsule. History is only useful if people actually know about it.

We personally love the juxtaposition of the old and the new that’s occurring in parts of downtown Austin, and are generally supportive of efforts to activate historic spaces so that the public can access them in a more meaningful way.  If done intelligently and intentionally, flexible commercial use of some historic buildings could be a great way to accomplish preservation, increase the functionality of prime downtown Austin real estate, and educate more folks about Austin’s rich history.