Rainey Street District Welcomes Salvation Pizza… and More

Rainey Street District Welcomes Salvation Pizza… and More

downtown-austin-salvation-sign

The Rainey Street District continues to evolve, most recently with the opening of Salvation Pizza at the base the Skyhouse Apartments, and across from Milago condos. And another pizza is apparently underway just down the block at 78 Rainey.

When Skyhouse apartments opened last year, their first retail tenant was the enormously popular Royal Blue Grocery. For months a TABC permit application donned the window and residents wondered when Salvation Pizza would finally open.

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Jude and I stopped in the other day and enjoyed a white pizza and it was very, very [Read more…]





“Adult-Oriented” Use proposed for 422 Congress

“Adult-Oriented” Use proposed for 422 Congress

Screenshot 2015-02-10 16.47.18

Congress Avenue – the Main Street of Texas – is about to “make it rain!”

An “adult oriented use” has been proposed for the site at 422 Congress Ave.  Lanai and other various cocktail lounges inhabit / have inhabited the space previously.

The city permitting office states: “The applicant is proposing a conditional use application for an adult oriented business” and the business is referred to as a “nightclub” in parts of the application for permit.

The legal term “adult-oriented business” means an adult arcade, adult bookstore, adult cabaret, adult lounge, adult novelty shop, adult service business, or adult theater.  Link to Austin’s land development code.  I think most observers would agree that “adult oriented business” is clearly a euphemism for strip-club.

Screenshot 2015-02-10 16.47.18

from Google maps

This would be a first for downtown Austin, at least this century.

More to come.





Prioritizing Pedestrians Over Parking With Proposed Pocket Patio

Prioritizing Pedestrians Over Parking With Proposed Pocket Patio

provided by dwg

Lot’s of Ps there.

There’s a new plan in place to put a pocket patio in front of the building at 804 Congress (the Bosche-Hogg office building).  This is the vision of building owner David Kahn, and if it happens we think it will be a major step towards activating Congress Avenue north of 8th Street.

Somewhat similar to the extremely successful patio concept first introduced to Congress Avenue by Royal Blue Grocery at 609 Congress in 2012 (a concept that won the ULI 2013 Award of Distinction for Public Impact), and designed by the same firm (dwg), we expect great things for the Bosche-Hogg patio.

This patio, which will benefit all the pedestrians walking along Austin’s “main street” will also have the effect of eliminating 4 city parking places.  We think this is a small price to pay for better pedestrian experience.

The City of Austin seems to agree:

Downtown Austin is comprised of more than 1,050 acres, the streets add up to 34.5% of downtown and parks and open space only consist of 12.3% of the entire area. In any city, the places between buildings need to be designed for people; well-designed, people-friendly places can beautify our city. A typical metered parking space downtown Austin will serve around 6 vehicles a day, while a parklet can serve hundreds who desire safe, attractive and welcoming public space.

The reality is, there are plenty of parking spaces downtown and the reason that there is a perceived lack of parking has only to do with the underutilization of existing parking garages – many of which remain largely empty for long periods of time.

A 2013 article from Community Impact sites:

According to city staff, in 2012, the average occupancy rate of existing off-street parking was 26 percent, with peak occupancy reaching about 67 percent. Two reasons Riley pointed out for the underused parking include garages that are not open to the public and drivers having difficulty in finding available parking.

We think Congress Avenue is the perfect place for this sort of concept to thrive.   Congress Avenue is downtown’s gem and making it more beautiful benefits the entire city.  Especially in the northern part of Congress, which needs more “non-Capitol Complex” pedestrian life breathed into it. Downtown Austin condos like Brazos Place should be extra supportive of these upgrades to their little corner of the neighborhood. We hope to see more of these concepts pop up.

Parklet-map

 





Art in Downtown Austin – ArtProm by Big Ass Canvas

Art in Downtown Austin – ArtProm by Big Ass Canvas

BAC pano

We’ve been fortunate to experience and host the work of several Austin artists, notably Hallie Rae Ward and Truth have dedicated space in the REATX office.

We’re always on the lookout for new additions, and were thrilled to discover a temporary gallery space that’s just opened in the 2nd Street district.  It’s being called ArtProm, is located at 208 Colorado, and is the brainchild of Travis Huse of Big Ass Canvas.

You’ve likely seen Travis’ work around Austin.  For one thing, he’s done the garage murals for the AMLI on 2nd Street district (if you are driving southbound on Guadalupe, you’ll see it on your right as you pass 3rd Street).  Residents of The Shore Condos may also recognize his work in our parking garage elevator bay at P1.

In our opinion, Austin is in dire need of more gallery experiences, particularly of the street art variety, and ArtProm delivers in similar fashion to SpraTX.

They’ll be around for the next couple of months, and we highly recommend stopping in and checking it out.  Art will rotate as it sells.

Additionally, Travis would also be excited to help coordinate using the space for private parties and the like. He wants to get people in the gallery and viewing the art.   If you have a guest list and need a cool space for your event – just reach out to him through his Big Ass Canvas site.

ArtProm is the best gallery addition to downtown Austin, since the Peoples Gallery started at City Hall.





70 Rainey Signals Condo Tower

70 Rainey Signals Condo Tower

70_Rainey_Street___A_Downtown_Austin_Condominium

The popular Rainey Street district may host the next condo tower to be announced in downtown Austin.  Known simply as 70 Rainey, the four lot assemblage, currently occupied by several mobile food trucks, is situated just east of the Mexican American Cultural Center.

While we’ve been expecting a tower on this site, it is noteworthy that 70rainey.com indicates the tower will deliver as condos for sale, rather than previous reports of a multi-family tower with apartments for rent.

70-rainey-map

Outline of the site, and adjacent 64 Rainey owned by the MACC

The site has been in play for several years and has seen several owners.

The current owner, Freemont Holdings, LLC – a related company of Manhattan developer Sackman Enterprises, acquired the site last year from local Riverside Resources.

City of Austin filings indicate that the site plan might not be fully fleshed out.  As of last October engineers are seeking 200 residences, for a total project size of 531,806 sf.

This is a nuanced change from what the project was originally entitled for, and new City of Austin ordinances for density in Rainey Street could hand-tie the developers ability tweak the building.  The new desired height of the tower has increased to 35 stories due to smaller floor plates in the revised building plan.

Summary of what we know about 70 Rainey:

  • Number of dwellings = 200 (86 1bd, 110 2bd, 4 penthouse)
  • Building size = 531,806 SF
  • Number of stories = 35 (tbd.)
  • Number of parking spaces = 478
  • Amenities include: onsite restaurant, 24 hour concierge, pool, gym, great streets sidewalks

After years without any new condo towers, the past 18 months have given downtown Austin three official announcements: Seaholm, Fifth & West, and The Independent.  The only building to see vertical construction so far is Seaholm, but site work has begun on Fifth & West.

Interestingly, those condo towers are located within two blocks of each other, and each is anchored to West Avenue.  It would be great to spread some of that excitement to the east of Congress Avenue, and perhaps that will be 70 Rainey… but maybe we’ll just as soon see 99 Trinity, or the three towers proposed by Waller Park Place.

-Jude





Visiting Seattle

Visiting Seattle

gum wall, up close

Jude and I like to travel in December, and we recently took our annual winter trip.  This year’s trip began in Seattle, WA. Neither of us had ever been to Seattle before, and were pleasantly surprised at the cultural similarities that the two cities have, while also, in my opinion, having very different “feeling” downtown areas.  Naturally, we began comparing the two downtowns, and while Austin is doing a lot of things right within the urban-core to make it one of the most desirable places in the country to live, downtown Seattle is also doing a lot of things right, and is anchored by beautiful natural scenery. Our City leadership can look to Seattle in terms of continuing to optimize Austin’s potential, notably their [troubled] effort to tear down the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a hideous highway separating the city from the bay.

 

Seattle-skyline

But, before I begin really comparing, I think it would be a good idea to start with some historical facts / population stats for both cities:

Population of downtown area:
Austin: around 10,000 (Downtown Austin Alliance), close to 1% of Austin’s total population
Seattle: around 60,000, close to 10% of Seattle’s total population (Downtown Seattle Association)

Public  / Communal Transportation:
Austin: CapMetro Buses, Red Line Commuter Rail, Taxis, BikeShare, Uber, Lyft, Car2Go, ZipCar
Seattle: Metro Buses, Ferry, Seattle Center Monorail, Seattle Streetcar, Link Light Rail, Taxi, Uber, Lyft, Car2Go, ZipCar

Public Market:
Austin: Sunday Farmer’s market in Republic Square park
Seattle: Pike Place Public Market, a permanent installment open 7 days a week

Size of downtown area:
Austin: 9 districts, approximately 1.5 square miles overall (.005 of total size of Austin)
Seattle: 12 distinct neighborhoods, approximately 4 square miles overall (.03 of total size of Austin)

Population Growth:
Austin and Seattle are the two fastest growing cities in the nation.

Notable Corporate HQs:
Austin: Whole Foods, HomeAway, GSD&M
Seattle: Amazon.com, Tableau, Starbucks

starbucks-logo-seattle

The original and, ahem, more anatomically correct Starbucks logo that you see much more prevalently in Seattle

The most interesting of these statistics, to me, is that the relative size and population of downtown Seattle to the overall city is a much higher percentage than with Austin.  One way of interpreting that fact is to say that downtown is a bigger part of the total Seattle experience, and I have a feeling policy and funding follow suit (which brings more dollars and more vibrancy back into their downtown to flow out to the rest of their city).  However, I would say that most people in Austin realize that downtown IS the city’s cultural center and a must see / do.   I think all Austinites can continue to keep that perspective top of mind while encouraging continued growth in our urban core – realizing that a vibrant and engaging downtown brings benefit to the entire city.

However, despite their difference in scope – downtown Seattle and downtown Austin do have similarities. For instance, where downtown Seattle has graceful Gulls, whose calls evoke the sounds of the calming sea that traces the edges of Seattle’s downtown,…downtown Austin has Grackles.  (Okay, so Seattle wins that one.) Where downtown Seattle has insane hills that are the stuff of sleigh-riders dreams, downtown Austin has a gentle southeastern slope that makes outdoor activities a dream. Downtown Seattle has the Needle, downtown Austin has … the Austonian.  Downtown Seattle has a crazy Gum Wall, downtown Austin (well, close to downtown) has a graffiti wall (Hope Outdoor Gallery).

The examples above are a little in jest – but I will say that the culture of downtown Seattle did, in fact, feel pretty similar to downtown Austin.  For one, the city is very dog friendly.  Dogs were everywhere.  Additionally, many of the restaurants and night-life spots in downtown Seattle could have just as well been in Austin.

The natural surroundings, however, could not have been more different.  There were mountains viewable from downtown Seattle, as well as an active ocean port.  The weather is very rainy and generally much colder than in Austin. Likely, because of the weather (and maybe the hills), I did not see NEARLY as many folks jogging or bicycling around downtown Seattle, where in Austin, that’s the definite norm. One thing that REALLY struck me is that downtown Seattle and downtown Austin are very close to the same age, both “founded” in the mid-1800s. Downtown Seattle had a broader historic feel, but Austin is simply effervescent with youth and new growth.

The public transportation was robust and almost effortless (at least to us) in Seattle.  Also, downtown Seattle had more shopping – department stores and mom and pop shops happily co-exist in downtown Seattle.

Nordstrom Rack right next to the Monorail

Nordstrom Rack right next to the Monorail

Additionally, and this is a very timely issue for Austin, but busking in Seattle certainly felt MUCH more professional than what I see in downtown Austin…here’s one of the many talented street performers sprinkled around downtown Seattle. It’s important to note that Seattle has some very lax regulations on busking, however. In Austin, I think it should be monitored and systemized more than it is, and stakeholders like DANA agree (the City is currently obtaining more stakeholder feedback before re-presenting their proposal on busking regulations).

Now, it may sound like I just think Seattle is the greatest thing since sliced bread and why don’t I just marry Seattle because I love it so much….but, it’s not like that.  I LOVE downtown Austin, I really do. I believe we are a relatively “new” downtown (in the modern sense) and an incredibly fast growing one, at that. And the opportunities that brings for those of us in on the ground floor of this burgeoning downtown are incredible. And it only benefits us to look to more established downtown centers across the country and take what we can from those that have done it before.  City leaders and policy influencers are already doing this, of course – but it never hurts to keep it top of mind.

And, I think it’s important to note that more isn’t ALWAYS better.  For instance, the amount of vagrancy in downtown Seattle was frankly overwhelming.  Austin certainly has vagrancy issues as well, but, at least, anecdotally, Seattle felt FAR worse. And, there’s controversy as to whether Seattle is really doing their best to solve the problem in a sustainable way.

From searching a few online sources, Seattle’s cost of living seems quite a bit higher than Austin’s.  Most online source quotes that housing is at least 25% higher in Seattle than in Austin. This figure does not compare the downtown areas specifically, but I would think there is some disparity there.

In the last 90 days, downtown Austin’s median sold pricing is observed to be $490 per foot.  Semi-reliable online sources quote a recent median sales price for downtown Seattle the last 90 days at around $475 per foot.  So, if this is accurate, it may be that downtown Austin, is in fact, the more expensive housing market, at least at this specific point in time.  One reason for that may be the relatively lower inventory.

I think looking to Seattle can really help those that are shaping the new downtown Austin – especially in terms of public transportation, the city’s relationship with its natural surroundings (the Waller Creek redevelopment and Shoal Creek Conservancy efforts certainly are on the right track), and the SCOPE of downtown in relation to the size of the overall city: encourage vertical development in the urban-core, in order to preserve the beauty of our hill-country.

One thing is clear, Austin is a fabulous place to live – and it’s sunny.  Seattle can keep all that cloudy gloom for itself.





Learning About Austin’s Urban Cemeteries

Learning About Austin’s Urban Cemeteries

provided by Kim McKnight - City of Austin, Parks and Recreation

When I lived in downtown Atlanta, one of my favorite restaurants was a nearby pub and seafood place called Six Feet Under in Grant Park. The restaurant was right across the street from a cemetery, and, rather than being grossed out at the thought of eating so close to the many corpses buried across the street, I found the view rather peaceful and beautiful.  I enjoyed going to their rooftop deck, ordering a beer, and gazing upon all of the serene tombstones.  With a strange-in-a-good-way feeling, being in the presence of so many that had lived before me helped me feel part of something larger, and put the petty problems of the day in perspective – a reminder that I was part of something much more significant.

Cemeteries are, I believe, an important part of the urban landscape; but a part of the urban landscape that I don’t think many people living in dense urban cities actually think about.  Austin seems to be on the cutting edge of trying to leverage aging infrastructure (or, if you’re into puns like me – “dead weight”) into a modern productive asset, and the current discussions surrounding a cemetery “master plan” are part of that process.

oakwood-cemetery-entranceCemeteries do not just take care of themselves.  There’s an entire system and economy behind operating these pieces of land. There are privately owned cemeteries, and there are municipal cemeteries, which have a basic function of providing affordable burial and related services for those in the community. Here in Austin, Travis County is responsible for providing burials for the indigent population.

Of the ~300 known cemeteries in Travis County, the City of Austin only owns five of them: Austin Memorial Park, Evergreen, Oakwood, Oakwood Annex, and Plummers. The City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department took over maintenance of the cemeteries in 2013.  A 2006 article in the Austin Chronicle explains how these City cemeteries “work” and some of the inherent challenges of running a cemetery:

Part of the difficulty in maintaining Oakwood lies in the fact that, although the city owns the property, caring for individual plots is the responsibility of the families of the people buried in them. As Jay Stone, manager of Austin Parks and Recreation’s financial services division, put it, “It’s no different [from] when you purchase your home. You do the upkeep.” Oakwood – and the city’s four other cemeteries – are like their own neighborhoods within the city. Think of the plots as people’s lots, the graves and mausoleums as people’s houses, and the tombstones and other markers as fences (hence references to the cemetery in old newspapers as “The City of the Dead”). The hole in this rationale, says Dale Flatt, president and co-founder of Save Austin’s Cemeteries, is that many of the families of people buried in Oakwood have long since moved away. In terms of long-term care, those graves have essentially become abandoned houses.

The City of Austin has never had a plan regarding the management and upkeep of municipal cemeteries, and it was the recent announcement of gathering public input for the City’s inaugural Cemeteries Master Plan that got me thinking about the business and real estate of cemeteries.  The fifth and final public input meeting is on Saturday, January 24, 2015, from 10:30am-12:30pm at the Austin Public Library, Carver Branch, 1161 Angelina Street. At that meeting, the Master Plan team will present the draft plan.

The two nearest cemeteries to downtown Austin are

  1. Oakwood Cemetery at 1601 Navosota, 78702, and the Oakwood Annex, City-owned and managed
  2. The Texas State Cemetery at 909 Navasota, 78702.  This is the impeccably manicured burial site of Stephen F. Austin, General Albert Sidney Johnston, Governor Allan Shivers, Governor John Connally, and Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock.

Oakwood and the Oakwood Annex rarely see new burials, and are deemed as historic sites.  Yet, the cheap chain-link fence that wraps the land has been an eyesore for years.  Between the two separate but adjacent sites rest over 35,000 buried bodies!  Oakwood is Austin’s oldest cemetery, established in 1839, when the City was originally platted.  Susanna Dickinson is among other notable Austinites buried there.

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When I read articles online about the urban cemetery as a concept, the theme from the articles was that space for a traditional burials is becoming limited, and urban cemeteries and burial practices are evolving to take into account those needs.

Interestingly, “stacked” burial plots are actually NOT allowed in Austin (I guess the City is presenting obstacles to urban density even in death, wakka wakka).

A little “spooked” (I can’t help myself.) and looking for answers, I called up Kim McKnight (a City employee who is facilitating the discussions around the Austin Cemetery Master Plan, and who has a background in urban revitalization), and she assured me that there is not really a threat of that happening in Austin for the foreseeable future.  However, she did say that part of the purpose of the Master Plan was to find ways for the municipally-owned and operated cemeteries’ use to evolve and perhaps generate some revenue.  She was VERY quick to clarify that the City does not view cemeteries as being the same as other parks, and that they should not be used as traditional recreation spaces, instead stressing “we can do a better job of activating those cemeteries so that they have some relevancy.”

Right now, only two of the five city-owned cemeteries actually brings in revenue.  The master plan seeks to address funding issues to create a sustainable model to keep these historic sites beautiful and maintained as a part of the larger community.  With Oakwood in particular, the City is not only looking at ways to activate the space, but is also considering creating additional burial options like cremation.  The Oakwood Annex is being considered as a site to hold a columbarium.

provided by Kim McKnight - City of Austin, Parks and Recreation

Oakwood Chapel, photo provided by Kim McKnight – City of Austin, Parks and Recreation

The master plan also seeks to tackle the issue of restoration / renovation of the sites.  One interesting project in Oakwood is the planned restoration of the Oakwood Chapel, with the intention to use the space for programming once it is renovated.  Charles Page a significant local architect who also designed the bandstand at Wooldridge Square and whose sons were partners in the well known firm PageSoutherlandPage, built the chapel in 1914.  The master plan will also address how to properly maintain gravestones and monuments, and provide irrigation solutions.

Unique Grave Markers at Oakwood, photo by Taylor Martinez

Tree care is also vitally important, and the City has forked over major funds for a tree inventory and assessment study.  Interesting aside – apparently foxes live in the Oakwood Cemetery – who knew?!

-Amber

Resources:

*A big thanks to Kim Mcknight for spending a good amount of time with me on the phone to talk about cemeteries and the Master Plan, and who also provided some of the pictures and resource links.





How Much Convention Center Is Too Much Convention Center?

How Much Convention Center Is Too Much Convention Center?

block-8 2

Block 8 sits in the southern shadow of the Four Seasons Residences, just west of the Austin Convention Center.  There are signals that the City of Austin is posturing for another Convention Center eminent domain battle (à la the Whittington Saga Part 1 & Part 2, which we wrote about in 2008).

City Staff recently recommended that the City acquire the southern tracts of what’s known as Block 8 to be part of an expansion of the Austin Convention Center, the first step in a larger proposed expansion.

block-8 2

The Convention Center currently sprawls over six city blocks, and hosts 881,400 square feet of space.  The City Memo states that there is “solid evidence” for expansion and is wanting up to 305,000 in additional square feet! No doubt the abundance of downtown hotel rooms recently built, and under-construction is part of that “evidence”.

You can view the memo in a recent report from the Austin Monitor, though talks about this have been going on behind closed doors for a while before this.

block-8-tcad-parcels

Plat map of the southern half of Block 8

Below is the breakdown of current ownership of the southern half of Block 8 that the city is intending to initially acquire:

101 E Cesar Chavez / 302 E Cesar Chavez – this is one of the most awkward buildings in downtown Austin. The tenant, Casa Chapala, recently closed its doors.  Public records show the lot to be owned by Bloctavo Holdings LLC / John Calhoun Miller, a real estate attorney in Texas. May be a registered agent.

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304 & 306 Cesar Chavez – downtown’s purveyor of Aprilias and Vespas, AF1 seems to hide in plain sight.  Owned by Bandy Real Estate LLC, a family operated LLC located in Kingsland, TX.

af1

AF1 Racing

316 & 316 1/2 Cesar Chavez  – A lovely surface parking lot (sarcasm), adjacent to the Christian Science Reading Room. Public records indicated this is owned by Bloctavo Holdings / John Calhoun Miller, a real estate attorney in Texas. May be a registered agent.

the view of the lot looking to the north

the view of the lot looking to the north

102 / 104 Trinity – The Christian Science Reading Room, owned by the First Church of Christian Science.

front exterior of the Christian Science Reading Room

front exterior of the Christian Science Reading Room

Southwest Strategies has been marketing the assemblage of the southern half of Block 8, hoping to get a developer to build with a long-term ground lease.

They describe Block 8 as follows:

The Block 8 Tracts are an assemblage of 4 smaller tracts. Currently, the western portion of the property along San Jacinto is improved with a two story building containing 6,103 sq. ft. currently leased to a restaurant on a short term basis. The central part of the assemblage is improved with a one story building containing 5,320 sq. ft. Tenant is on a month-to-month lease. The eastern portion of the assemblage consists of a paved parking lot utilized for contract parking and an owner occupied one story building consisting of 4,161 sq. ft.

It’s true that the block sits on a prime redevelopment location.  It’s near the convention center, has CBD zoning, and “is unencumbered by any Capitol View Corridors.”

block-8-capitol-view-corridor

Per the Austin Business Journal, “City officials invested about $110 million to expand the convention center in 2002 by several city blocks.”

In their memo, the City states that it has already sent what’s called a Letter of Intent to Acquire to the property owners, and is also already throwing around eminent domain references (though the memo does state that the City will make a good faith attempt to acquire the properties at market value).

The above lots are just the first part of the plan.  From the Austin Monitor: “Rizer suggests the city will need to acquire ‘the equivalent of three to four City blocks‘ to accumulate enough room for the additional space.”

As a resident of downtown, the prospect that an additional three to four blocks of CBD zoned downtown Austin land, currently occupied by thriving businesses, would be annexed by a sprawling Convention Center is alarming.  This would divide downtown Austin using brute force malaise-era design principals.  The City should instead be investing in sustainable design that enhances the preciously compact pedestrian experience our downtown currently affords to residents and visitors.

I call BS on the dogma that Convention Centers can only expand horizontally.  City leadership should invite world class designers to show us a better path to expand vertically on the already significant Convention Center footprint.

-Jude