Becoming a model urban neighborhood: what does Downtown Austin need?

Becoming a model urban neighborhood: what does Downtown Austin need?

Each day this week I am serving up one item, with non-politically correct candor, that Downtown Austin needs to become a model of re-urbanization, as I see it.

Politicians love to talk, form task forces, and spend time doing everything except for making decisions as they are needed.  So, this is an appeal to Downtown Austin stakeholders that know how to get things done:  the residents, developers, retailers, and land owners.

I want a Super Target on Congress Ave.

Yes, it’s known as a big box store and is identified with sprawl.  It doesn’t need to be that way! Retailers like H-E-B and WalMart are sophisticated enough to design stores that work as urban infill or adaptive reuse projects.  A large destination store that has groceries and products that people need [and can afford] on a regular basis would be amazingly successful.

Remember that rendering produced by Stratus for the Seaholm redevelopment which depicted a multi-story H-E-B?  That was inspired.

Downtown Austin landlords with retail space should begin to focus less on luxury goods and more on “liveability” goods.  I don’t want to see more boutiques.  I don’t want to see more salons.  I don’t want to see more bars/lounges.  These are all fine, except they serve a very limited audience.  The next wave of successful retail in Downtown Austin will be for products that people need and can afford to purchase.

Stratus's rendering for HEB at Seaholm

Stratus's rendering for HEB at Seaholm

Spring [almost] tops out

Spring [almost] tops out

Spring tops out at 42 stories

Spring almost topped out at 42 stories

According to an email I received this morning from the developer, Spring condominiums will complete it’s vertical construction soon and is on pace to be ready for move in by this summer.  Word on the street is Spring has more than 60% of the units under contract.

From the announcement…

“Expect to see a tree on the top of Spring Condominium soon.  The tree is a tradition, symbolizing a building has reached the top floor of its construction.  Spring’s glass envelope will also soon be complete.  Once the painters have completed the exterior color coating, most of the tower’s exterior elements will be complete.

Interior work continues with installations of finishes reaching level 25.  Over 400 workers are on-site working simultaneously on all aspects of the construction of Spring.  From work on the structure to installations of glass windows and walls, flooring, tile, cabinetry, electrical and mechanical to the finalization of the pool deck and lobby design, Spring’s team is combining efforts to complete the building by Summer 2009.

Blight

Blight

Downtown Austin - Parking Garage Nirvana

Downtown Austin - Parking Garage Nirvana

Blight: Something that impairs growth, withers hopes and ambitions, or impedes progress and prosperity.

In Downtown Austin nothing kills hopes, dreams, ambitions, old ladies and little children like under-developed land.  According to DANA board member Roger Cauvin, in economic terms, blight can be considered an “externality,” which “are the indirect costs imposed on society by an economic activity. Pollution is an example of an externality.  If economic agents (e.g. developers) aren’t made to pay for the externalities, we are effectively subsidizing harmful behavior.”

In Downtown Austin, blight manifests itself in the primary forms of:
1) parking lots (or razed lots)
2) parking garages
3) chain link fence
4) perpetual disrepair

The Northeast quadrant of Downtown Austin takes the cake for parking garages.  The area is desolate and completely void of human interaction. Unimproved parking lots are scattered throughout Downtown.  It could easily be argued that Downtown Austin blight reaches it’s zenith on 6th Street.  (slideshow)  Broken doors, windows, tattered chain link fence, destroyed ATMs, it’s all there.

As I see it, the problem of blight is rooted with the owner of the property that is creating or hosting the blight.  The economic behavior of hoarding undeveloped property in the CBD is contrary to the density goals of Downtown Austin stake holders.  It is also contrary to the city’s and county’s goals of collecting ad valorem taxes.  Perhaps more importantly, razing your lot and wrapping it in chain link fence is contrary to the sense of community.

Over the past couple of months you’ve seen related topics discussed at Austin Contrarian.  According to Chris Bradford, “We badly need a mechanism for discouraging property owners from warehousing vacant lots downtown.  The solution is not to shut out all redevelopment to eliminate the risk of this kind of behavior.  What we need is a vacant-lot surcharge or something like it.  A surcharge calibrated to compensate the other downtown property owners, businesses and visitors for the very real cost of blighting a block.  This might encourage property owners/developers to leave existing buildings in place or  to fill in currently vacant lots, even if the structures are inexpensive and small.”

Well said.

-Jude

Tattered chain link fence along Waller Creek

Tattered chain link fence along Waller Creek

Downtown Austin Emerging Projects – updated poster

downtown austin emerging projects

downtown austin emerging projects

The City of Austin periodically publishes a poster of emerging projects.  The latest version (pdf) was just released.  This poster shows projects under construction or being planned in Downtown Austin.  Big changes can be seen on this poster compared to the last version.

Added:
1) Lance Armstrong Crosstown Bikeway

Removed:
1) Monarch (complete)
2) 360 (complete)
3) AMLI on 2nd (complete)
4) Museum Tower, AMOA (dead)
5) Red River Flats (complete)
6) La Vista on Lavaca (on hold)
7) Aqua Terra (dead)

Buildings not likely to get built within the next five years.
1) 7Rio
2) Ovation
3) Navare Block 52
4) Federal Courthouse
5) The Orsey
6) Marriott Hotel

UPDATE: AMOA museum tower is officially cancelled

its official

it's official

Recently it was speculation, but now it’s official. According the Austin Business Journal, Hines Interestes LP, the developer planning the office portion of the museum tower, will allow its option on the land to expire today.

“Due to the uncertain economy, we made the difficult decision not to renew the option in 2009. However, Hines is still interested in developing an office building in Austin when the market recovers, and we hope it will be in conjunction with AMOA and its museum. The project will not restart until the market improves.  Our hope would be to get a new deal together in 2009 or 2010, and then move full steam ahead. We see great potential in the long-term viability of the city of Austin.” –Travis Overall, Hines vice president

Located at 4th and Guadalupe, this is one of the few undeveloped sites in Downtown Austin that is not in a capitol view corridor, so it’s availability should quickly attract the interest of opportunistic developers.  Otherwise we’ll endure another couple of years of surface parking blight 🙁   Add this site to the other prime downtown sites available and I expect to see some interesting proposals over the next year.

Thanks to DANA‘s Roger Cauvin for the heads up!