At some point you have have sympathy for the cats who have to build the iconic set on KLRU’s Austin City Limits. During the show’s first two or three decades, the two-dimensional backdrop featuring Austin’s skyline didn’t require a whole lot of tweaks. But since the turn of the millennium, it seems that just about every other week a new tower rises over Bat City’s central core, sending the ACL crews back to the lumber yard in order to keep up.
After the official groundbreaking of The Independent condos on Monday, those poor souls will soon have their work cut out for them yet again. The 58-story residential tower will soon rise in its singular disjointed fashion as the brand new centerpiece of the downtown Austin skyline. Dubbed the “Jenga building” for the eye-grabbing way that it jukes and jives from the top of its parking plinth to the high heavens above, The Independent will be — as its developers are quick to remind you over and over and over again — the tallest residential building west of the Mississippi (And according to my own half-assed research, it may well also be the tallest one east of the Yangtze. Top that, Navy Town, Alaska!).
Yours truly had the fine privilege of crashing the groundbreaking party on Monday afternoon at W. 3rd Street and West Avenue. The crisp weather didn’t deter a crowd of well over a hundred people from packing into the large fenced off area just beneath the almost-finished Seaholm Residences building. It’s a testament to the explosive growth of Downtown that one can stand on the future site of a major high-rise, do a full 360-degree twirl, and not see a single building old enough to be know how to tie its own shoes yet.
Monday’s affair was part-groundbreaking for this single project and part pep rally for Downtown Austin as a whole. In fact, it almost came off as a sort of quinceanera/coming-out ball for modern Downtown: The growth spurt is at full speed and maturity is finally at hand.
Mega-developer Perry Lorenz, who has a hand in The Independent, presided over the speechifying part of the ceremony and introduced former Mayor Kirk Watson as the visionary leader who helped turn Downtown from a low-rise, dusty pancake of government offices and industrial wastelands into the vibrant-if-slightly-pubescently-awkward urban neighborhood it is today.
For his part, Watson — and this may shock you, dear reader — did not demur from the praise. “We said we were going to change the way Downtown looked because it would make a difference in our way of life and it would make a difference in our economics and it would make a difference in our tax base,” Watson, in his folksy, ebullient manner, drawled. “We didn’t have very many people living Downtown. One of the things we wanted to do was send a message to the private sector that we were serious about this.”
Watson framed The Independent as a sort of culmination of those efforts. “Not only are seeing the fruition of that vision, but we’re making history by building something this big, this neat, this cool.”
And big, neat, and cool it is! Say what you will about the arresting design (Watson, a noted non-architect, said it looks “like a Lego project gone wild.”), but give it a few bonus points for defying the cream-and-blue-glass trend of its immediate neighbors. A downtown skyline is essentially the physical manifestation of an entire city’s face, a window into its soul if you will. New York City is as timeless and commanding as the Empire State Building. Houston is as bland, lazy, and inexplicably large as the JPMorgan Chase Tower. And Dallas… well… Dallas’ most prominent landmark is a giant money-colored phallus, so God bless ’em.
Here now in Austin, we’ll soon see a weird tower with unusual, possibly stoned posture just sort of lounging around and soaking the sun by Lady Bird Lake. It will be that hippie-meets-yuppie combo of old-school militant individualism and the new go-go era of tech-money urbanism. And unlike those other cities, Austin’s largest structure will be made up of homes, not offices that are abandoned for the suburbs after 5 p.m. An asinine writer might even go so far to suggest that The Independent’s most towering statement is that Downtown Austin is for l-i-v-i-n, man.
Further proof of that is seen in the extended list of other residential developments that have preceded The Independent in recent years in the southwestern section of Downtown near Shoal Creek. That club includes Spring condos, 360 Condominiums, Seaholm Residences, the Bowie, 5th and West, two or three of the various Amlis, the Monarch, and several more whose names I don’t have on instant or even gradual recall in my brain. The Independent is merely the latest step in the long march towards former Mayor Will Wynn’s pie-in-the-sky-for-its-time goal of getting Downtown’s population up to 25,000 residents. Granted, we’ve passed Wynn’s deadline for that goal last year, but if any of the predictions I made ten years ago came true, the War in Afghanistan would be over, cell phone cameras would be as laughable as New Coke, my journalism degree would have secured me reliable employment in a stable industry, and Sean Penn would be interviewing billionaire cartel kingpins for Spin magazine. So you see how perilous the field of prognostications can be.
The Independent is also a stellar example of how Downtown essentially bankrolls the rest of the city.
Mayor Steve Adler, who has a remarkable ability to cater his message to the audience at hand, told the crowd on Monday that Downtown is the “the city’s piggy bank in a very real sense.” To wit: The Independent, Adler said, will be worth a grand total of $18 million to the city’s affordable housing trust fund.
As the mayor explained, “That’s the equivalent of going to the voters in the city of Austin and asking for their approval in a bond election.”
I try not to let stuff like that go to my head, but it’s awfully hard not to feel proud about my neighborhood essentially bankrolling the rest of the city. The large-scale densification from Rainey Street over to North Lamar has set the template for a true urban neighborhood where car ownership is an option rather than a necessity. The Independent will stand as the slightly awry exclamation point to Watson’s vision and the efforts of so many others who have worked to make it a reality. And if its likeness does make it onto the set of a certain long-running live music program on public television, it will serve as a reminder that behind the creative culture of this city stands the dynamic economic energy of an emerging urban success story.