Warehouse District vs. Capitol View Corridors

Warehouse District vs. Capitol View Corridors

Sign at 5th and Bowie providing direction to the Warehouse District

Sign at 5th and Bowie providing direction to the Warehouse District

Writer Katherine Gregor presents the story of the Warehouse District in this week’s Chronicle.

The Warehouse District is valuable for two reasons:

1) It’s an established destination in downtown.
2) It’s uniquely positioned outside of the Capitol View Corridors (map)

As Michael McGill astutely pointed out: “this is the sort of all day activity that 6th Street and Red River would kill for…this is the envy… this is what you want… this is what people work so hard to design in…”

From the article…

“The irony is that the district is so at risk because it’s so attractive – people want to do new developments in it and close to it,” said Jacqui Schraad, executive director of the Heritage Society. For example, the planned 18-story Westin Hotel will market itself as a chic “Warehouse District hotel”.

What is being proposed is clearly a taking of property rights, however, ROMA is offering an economic alternative that could potentially enable individual Warehouse District property owners to earn more money by transferring their air rights to other projects.  Currently, the adjacent property owners need to work with each other to create an assemblage site large enough to build a high rise.  ROMA’s solution appears to eliminate the need for these relationships of necessity and allow individual property owners to cash in on their property without the need to work with their neighbor.

A system of transference of development intensity could effectively put an end to the CURE based system to pursue additional entitlements.  Arguably, getting rid of the CURE system would eliminate the potential for backdoor lobbying efforts and could reduce the feasibility costs to developers.  Simply put, if you needed more density, you could just purchase it.  But, is there a real market for these air rights? Clearly the owners of the Warehouse District properties are not confident that there is.

This will be not an easy decision.  IMO, the real culprit is the Capitol View Corridors which artificially inflate and depress the intrinsic value of properties that are either outside or inside of the view corridor, respectively.  Were they not to exist, the extreme focus on this small assemblage of land we call the Warehouse District might not be at issue.  But, the existence of the Capitol View Corridors is a subject that is political wildfire with the “no growth” opinions who seem to equate “keep Austin weird” with “keep Austin low and sprawling”.

I’ve always believed that you don’t bite off the hand that feeds you, and Downtown Austin has been feeding off the charm of the Warehouse District for years.  The Warehouse District is an attractive destination for all of Austin and it’s visitors.  If ROMA’s recommendations aren’t adopted, it’s not likely that the Warehouse District will completely disappear, but we can expect it to change.  As our community works to create an amazing downtown experience, losing this district, in it’s current form, will take us further from that goal.


Perspectives On The Warehouse District – Part 2

[This is a follow up to yesterday’s post. 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 in the Warehouse District.  They have graciously agreed to allow their opinions be published here.]

From Michael McGill:

“Why would someone who is pro-density, like myself, and someone who is typically leery of ‘save the x’ campaigns, come out strongly in favor of saving the warehouse district? The short answer is: This is sound urban planning.

I certainly have my quibbles with the current density bonus plan, but with regards to the proposal for a Transfer of Development Rights (TDR) mechanism in the Warehouse District, ROMA has definitely earned their keep. It is an excellent and balanced approach to preservation that allows flexibility of use and no loss of net density in downtown. This is a welcome opportunity to advocate for something rather than against it…and if council approves this current plan it should help avoid the high-drama community vs. developer fights in the future by providing a predictable framework for community benefits as a path to increased density allowances.

It’s been argued (perhaps reflexively) that the warehouse district plan is a change in property rights and it’s true that it is…but the entire density bonus plan is a change. In general, that change leans heavily towards increased entitlements and simplified requirements. Moreover, there is no loss in property value for those owners since any property that agrees to initiate conservation is eligible for a 25:1 FAR (floor to area ratio) upzoning that they can then sell. This is on top of local property tax abatement and federal income tax credits. Those landowners will be just fine. Since many owners in the district also have significant other holdings downtown, they can transfer the allowances to themselves for a buck if they so choose and they certainly end up better off than their current 8:1 FAR entitlement. It should also be noted that because of the fractured ownership of lots in the district, even with no action by council it would be incredibly hard to assemble property large enough to make these heights/densities a reality anyway. It’s more hypothetical / conceptual to talk about 8:1 FAR or more buildings on these sites. Recent downtown projects haven’t fully utilized their entitlements as it is and the last three warehouse buildings to come down have all become surface parking lots, which is the likely near-term alternative if this plan is not approved.

Now that we’ve discussed the equitable method of how we can preserve the district and other dim alternatives, let’s talk about why we should preserve it. Trade-offs are difficult topics, and even if high density is unlikely on its own in this area, it should be noted that density has great value in that it provides the means to achieve a more affordable, sustainable and livable community (and a ROI and tax base increase). It’s part of why I choose to live downtown, but it’s also important to remember that those are the ends and density is the means. As with any means, it has its limits when it comes in conflict with the net impact to those ends. Adding density, say, at the expense of The Trail at Lady Bird Lake is where the net loss of value, both in economic and livability terms, makes no sense. The park, in that case, is worth more than any building that can be put on it. The loss of it, Sixth Street, and, I would contend, the Warehouse District, would be a net loss to this city. Downtown would be less livable for residents, less desirable for relocation by businesses and less attractive for tourism by visitors.

This cluster of adaptively re-used historic structures we know today as the Warehouse District is the most vibrant entertainment district in the city and it will not remain intact, but rather fall victim to its own success, without active planning and involvement. The century-old industrial past, as well as the red-light history of the area when it was still known as ‘Guytown’ has a unique and authentic value that helps make this an attractive, creative class city. Great cities, including many that Austin repeatedly cites as models, have preserved their warehouse districts and have benefitted accordingly. These include the last five intercity visits by the Chamber of Commerce: Vancouver, San Diego, Denver, Portland, and Seattle, not to mention far larger cities like New York that have successfully managed the balance between density and character of place. I appreciate Austin’s history, but I support this measure more out of a belief in Austin’s future as a great city.”

[update: Michael suggests readers take a few minutes to visit www.savethewarehousedistrict.com.]

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.”

4th Street Stairway Of Death Becoming Less Deadly

4th Street Stairway Of Death Becoming Less Deadly

[Thanks to DANA’s Greg Anderson for the pics!]

If you’ve been to the downtown Austin warehouse district you might agree that part of the appeal is the intermittent above grade pedestrian experience.  Always precarious, though I never witnessed anyone fall.  The staircase across from the Spaghetti Warehouse has always been especially dicey.

The City of Austin is making some changes.  You will no longer risk breaking an ankle (or a head) crossing the street at 4th & Colorado.

Was it mom and stroller friendly?  No.  Was it ADA friendly?  No way.  Was it deadly?  Well, almost, but not because of the stairs.  Was it charmingly awkward?  I think so.

Is this a good use of city funds right now, perhaps at the greater expense of the neighborhood’s magic formula?  You be the judge.

BTW, have you joined DANA yet?

So long stairs!

So long stairs!

Uninspired design

Can we at least have some ivy or vines on the walls?