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.
Roger L. Cauvin says
It’s Saturday morning, and I just got back from drinking a latte while sitting at a table on the sidewalk of Hermosa Avenue in Hermosa Beach (suburb of L.A.). The vibrancy and pedestrian activity is amazing. Hundreds of people passed by me on the sidewalk during that half hour.
Now, I despise many things about the L.A. area. The automobile orientation in most parts of the metropolitan area makes me feel ill.
And there are no highrises here on Hermosa Avenue, though there is a pretty decent amount of density.
But let’s not kid ourselves about the Warehouse District. It may be vibrant on a Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night. But compared to what I just experienced here in Hermosa Beach, the vibrancy of the Warehouse District really somewhat pathetic most of the time.
And St. Louis? Really? Did you miss the McCracken flap? It was such a big flap because St. Louis is a prototypical donut-hole – i.e. precisely the example we’re trying so hard to avoid here.
Thomas, the point you and miggy keep making is essentially “there’s plenty of other places to build skyscrapers”.
This sounds like an attractive argument in favor of preserving the Warehouse District. Too bad it’s not true.
1. even in a density-friendly environment, the CVCs would eliminate half or more of the remaining downtown blocks
2. we just elected a moderately anti-density mayor
3. we have the strictest opponent of density possible already on the Council
4. the ANC runs roughshod over the boards and commissions
5. SaveTownLake is making sure no density exists that might block Travis Heights’ view of the lake; and I’m sure they’ll be emboldened to move across to the north shore any day now.
The fact of the matter is that the WHD presents us with a couple blocks that might actually be more than 50% of the realistically available remaining skyscraper-suitable space in downtown.
Thomas Paine says
I am all for density for it’s sustainable merits, I’m simply saying let’s promote a solution that protects what small interpretations of history Austin can lay claim to AND pave the way for density, at the very least to help Austin keep a physical character that reflects the patrons of its streets.
You can build to house 2 million people downtown if you’d like, but if there isn’t anything—some trace of something cultural, something interesting to experience, something as simple as period architecture—what is the difference (besides sprawl) between the ideals of suburbia and what you’re promoting downtown? A pocket “oasis” of cookie cutter residential wasteland surrounded by poolhalls and clothing stores?
Roger, your sentiment ignores my points entirely and sounds like the drawl of a corporate hustle. We are a sleepy town devoid of significant history (which is the result of a shady founding as a capital city I guess) and instead of advocating for its complete removal, I would hope people would recognize the importance, however seemingly miniscule, that period architecture has to city. Yes, we all know they aren’t the most innovative examples, and yes of course no original tenants are left (which btw, is the most idiotic reasoning toward responsible development I’ve ever heard). But at least on some level, if we protect this area’s character, Austin can maintain a sense of history on its streets that doesn’t involve sharing the all same date of founding.
Another good example of responsible design I can think of is the old Texas Comptroller project. A 50s gem. A great compromise bet/ the old and the new. Again, why on earth is this a bad thing? So it wont be a high rise, there will be others, I guarantee it. And hopefully they will replace less relevant buildings (the new Starwood project comes to mind, although I bet its restricted, ha..). Take a look at cities like St Louis, cities with myopic job markets and educational systems, yet rich in historical fabric. Through responsible and focused revitalization projects, St Louis has incubated an attraction that now owes heavily to a respect of its past (and the ability of it’s major art museum to get out of the basement of a commercial building, but I digress).
Anyhow, I’m ranting in circles. Build it up, but build it smart, with a respect for where we came from and where we are going. Period.
Looks like we’re going to agree to disagree on this, Mike. But I do want to stress that if this conversation were to occur in person, you would not hear a patronizing tone in my voice, just as I would hope to get a respectful tone in return.
You and I have more in common than not – we both want a dense, vibrant downtown – I’m pretty sure we’ve supported the same candidates in the last two local election cycles – we’ve both publicly debated Jim Skaggs, heck – I think we even went to the same school (Penn State?). In short – I look forward to future isseus where I expect us to agree more.
(Jude – This is my last post on this thread – thanks for hosting us)
All the best,
The ‘reply’ function is broke – this is in response to miggy’s last comment.
Miggy, until you address the fact that eliminating easy FAR exemptions everywhere else in downtown and implementing the TDR scheme is actually a DECREASE in allowed total downtown density, we have nothing to talk about, and I resent your patronizing tone to boot.
Warehouses aren’t parks; they aren’t retail; they don’t give us anything. They’re just buildings; and not particularly historic ones anyways.
Chop Chop says
The warehouse district did not develop because people loved the historic architecture, the low-rise form of the buildings, or the pedestrian friendly environment (the sidewalks would be a joke if they weren’t so dangerous.)
The district developed because it offered cheap, existing building stock that could easily be repurposed into an entertainment district without a lot of bureaucratic restrictions (zoning, parking, noise, etc.).
But these conditions are gone. Many of the original inhabitants that helped form the district are gone: Waterloo Brewing Company, Alamo Drafthouse, Mezaluna, Ruta Maya. They are victims of their own success – priced out of an entertainment area that has become too expensive for that sort of low rent slacking. The old warehouse district that we knew and loved is gone and won’t come back no matter what buildings we protect.
But this is not to say that downtown Austin will lose the neighborhoods that keep it unique. As we speak, enterprising restraunteers are turning northern Rainey Street into a unique collection of restaurants and cocktail lounges. If successful, the “Rainey St District” will have a look and feel completely different from 4th Street, but one future Austinites will site as “one of the areas that makes Austin, Austin.”
The real thing that keeps Austin unique is not its physical neighborhood (6th Street, SoCo, Red River, the Drag and the Warehouse district). It is the people and the spirit, and you cannot bulldoze those.
Well said. I find it toxic to the sustainability movement to try to ‘preserve’ warehouses that don’t even have their iconic tenants all for the sake of people who drive into downtown, at the expense of creating more real neighborhoods downtown for people to actually live in.
Roger L. Cauvin says
Mike M. (miggy), you’ve distorted my remarks.
Where did I claim TDRs will never have a market? I did question whether, realistically, other downtown lots will accommodate the kind of density that we should have as our goal. But you may be confusing my claims about the market for TDRs with someone else’s claims.
In a brief comment, I did raise some straightforward questions about the impact of restricting Warehouse District development on downtown density as a whole. But I didn’t, as you contend, imply that therefore the issue is “all resolved in [my] favor”. On the contrary – the only affirmative claim I made in the comment was that advocates of “protecting” the Warehouse District seem to have taken a position without understanding the larger implications on density downtown.
I’m glad to hear that groups are revising the flat 45 foot height restriction. Thanks for your patient diplomacy and careful nagivation on the issue. I do still think that the premise that it’s beneficial to preserve the Warehouse District is dubious.
I’m offering my opinions on issues that arise in the forums I read. If I see arguments for restricting height in the Market District, I will likely respond as well. Why should I not feel free to share my opinions on both issues as they arise?
Roger – we agree on most urban planning matters – perhaps 80 or 90% I’d guess – but we disagree here as you know. It is not my intention to descend into ad hominem arguments or the levels of vitriol usually reserved for the comments section of the Statesman. My frustration arises from the fact that I’m trying to actively build bridges and solutions… not just comment on them. If this was just about comments or a war of words – and not about real solutions – I’d concede today. I wouldn’t care if I lost every argument – in public forums – wherever. But this isn’t about scoring rhetorical points – this is about the urban environment we both inhabit. It’s worth fighting for, and I will continue to do so, as I trust you will, too. We need you to do so, in fact. A fantastic opportunity for your involvement that could make a real impact would be for you to work with the varied parties regarding the market district. It needs a strong advocate and you’d be great for it.
Roger L. Cauvin says
Mike M. (miggy), we each have our strengths and roles. You have a gift for reaching out to diverse interests, finding common ground, and working through details to find solutions.
I am one someone who challenges core assumptions. In this case, I believe some of the core assumptions behind preserving the Warehouse District are flawed, and I think it’s important to build awareness of that fact.
There is a role for both us – someone who builds bridges and solutions, and someone who ensures the fundamental assumptions behind those solutions are sound.
That’s kind of hard to read. Maybe this will be better:
Existing conditions: 8-1 entitlement everywhere; exemptions fairly easy to get anywhere in core of downtown.
Proposed conditions: Eliminate prospects of density in WD; transfer additional FAR entitlements to other blocks in downtown (the few that aren’t already developed or encumbered by CVCs).
How is that a net increase in density? Either we keep the current relatively permissive exemptions from 8-1 FAR, in which case there’s basically no market for the TDRs, or we clamp down on those exemptions and only allow more than 8-1 with a TDR; in neither case can we get even as much density as we could have under the current regime.
Mike D., if the assumption is that the 8:1 FAR entitlements that exist today don’t really exist today – you are correct – any zoning at all will look like a downzoning. And while permissive today, the case-by-case arrangements of community benefits that get offered up in exchange for those exemptions is an uncertain regulatory environment and subject to significant distortions based on circumstances. The Density Bonus program proposal a.) increases base entitlements from 8:1 to 12:1 and b.) allows a predictable path to increasing them further through a formula for community benefits…one such way is buying a TDR from the warehouse district which gets upzoned to 25:1. Do the density bonus provisions amount to more or less cost than the case-by-case status quo – that I don’t know – and it would be difficult to reliably quantify by its nature anyway. Do I consider it an upzoning – yes. Am I happy about downtown getting upzoned – yes.
Do I have my concerns with the proposal in general? Sure I do, but I’m swallowing hard for clarity of message. Perhaps the needle has swung too far in that direction since no one seems to be talking about the other portions of the plan besides the Warehouse District. I got involved two years ago because I was sick of buildings in a successful urban district getting scraped for surface parking lots for long periods of time. Don’t think that’s possible? Go look at the demo permit in the window of 5th & Colorado – with no construction timeline whatsoever. Surface parking lot. Dead spot. Urban blight. Can we all agree that this is not what anyone wants to see?
Sure; I hate those parking lots as much as you do. But I don’t see downzoning all of downtown as the solution to that problem; and I _do_ see replacing today’s “you can easily get to 25-1 FAR” with “you get only 12-1 and have to buy TDRs to go higher, except for the WHD, where you can’t go up at all” as downzoning, because that’s what it is.
I’d gladly drive the bulldozer to knock these warehouses down in the service of getting more than 25,000 people downtown – it’s just that important.
Mike D., would you also gladly drive the bulldozer through nearby Republic Square in the service of getting more than 25,000 people downtown? How about any office building or hotel or our little three story city hall? How about ground level retail? They all add zero new residents for your total and would instead crowd out residential use, wouldn’t you agree? I’m hoping that you don’t – which is to say that you accept limits to your argument. If you don’t admit to any limits – well – it’s been nice chatting, but this conversation has jumped the shark. I’ll leave it to Roger to hopefully point out your fundamental flaws.
Now if we do accept that there isn’t an infinitely repeatable benefit (the ends) to the city as a result of density (the means) – and that there can be a net loss in some cases, the question is begged not so much how many people can we physically put downtown but how can we get a great, dense urban environment that captures the maximum benefits and minimizes the net losses. To talk about benefits – it can’t just be boiled down to the simplicity of FAR – and that’s a larger conversation.
In general, I’d say that your heart is in the right place, and that I, too, would love to shift the tax burden to marginal negatives (like parking lots, drive-thru banks, and sprawl in general) from marginal economic benefits (like more residential floors in downtown as envisioned in this plan). I contend, though, that with some important tweaks that I believe to be in the works already, this is still a practicable improvement from where we are today. Don’t spite the stars for want of the moon.
miggy, the problem is that you hypothesize a market for TDRs based on increased FAR entitlements – when the fact is that here in Austin, exemptions from the 8-1 FAR requirement have been fairly easy to obtain in the past (without TDRs). What does buying TDRs get a prospective developer, in other words, that they don’t already have? Is our public policy in CBD zoning going to shift to requiring 8-1 no matter what unless TDRs are purchased? This, then, doesn’t get us any additional density on those tracts than what we could have had under the current regime (where exemptions are, again, fairly easy to get); in other words, the additional density elsewhere you claim would make up for the Warehouse restrictions isn’t actually additional at all.
I find calling Roger’s (and by implication’s anybody else here’s) opposition as being a “gadfly” offensive, by the way. I don’t think you’re winning any hearts and minds by doing that.
I just don’t see TDRs compensating remotely for the removal of some of the few tracts not limited by CVCs. Are there really that many people owning tracts elsewhere in downtown (who couldn’t have gotten to a 25-1 FAR without resorting to TDRs)?
Roger L. Cauvin says
M1EK, you raise an important question. Advocates of “protecting” the Warehouse District seem to have taken a position without understand the larger implications on density downtown. What are reasonable long-term density goals for downtown? How are they impacted by the prospect of restricting Warehouse District redevelopment? These questions should be answered.
Roger – those questions should be answered and since you haven’t offered any unassailable answers of your own, I would avoid using a tone like this is all resolved in your favor. Moreover, you’re oversimplifying the very real argument for urban density, discounting the fact that net density downtown would increase under the density bonus proposal, and overstating, with no evidence offered, that TDRs will never have a market when they have been successfully implemented in other cities.
Also, you should know that the current proposal being circulated replaces the blunt 45ft height requirement in the core 4th street zone with a local historic district that offers specific elements, which property owners would help set, that should be actively conserved while being open to redevelopment/density most likely with set backs or design guidelines on new construction. It’s not a preservationists’ dream and nor is it the dogmatic laissez-faire approach that you’re arguing – but this is a hard fought compromise that can work for all players.
If you would like to take your arguments and put them to good use, I would once again recommend to you that you get out in front of the proposed down-zoning of the ‘Market District’ – basically the downtown part of the Lamar corridor – instead of being a gadfly to this work here. The taking of property rights in the Western part of downtown is not compensated with TDRs that also help preserve net density and this restriction is not in the service of retaining an active mixed use historic asset that adds significant value to downtown and this city, like the warehouse district. This should be an even greater affront to your ideas but you prefer to argue with me instead. I can’t choose your battles for you – but I can point a good soldier like yourself to a different front.
Jude Galligan says
@Roger – Thanks for your comments. “Couldn’t we end up with something different but better?” Of course, that’s entirely possible.
The challenge as I see it is that you are betting with social/cultural currency. The risk of uncoordinated ad-hoc design between neighboring properties overtaking a destination-district defined by it’s design – short buildings from a bygone era – is a legitimate concern and shouldn’t be spun as myopic, nor unenlightened.
I also want to reiterate my assertion that legal protectionism of the district would be a clear taking of property rights and ROMA’s proposal warrants skepticism, but I suspect the bottom line $$$ for the property owners is improved under ROMA’s recommendations.
Fundamentally, Roger, this debate exists because the City/State/County has already jumped to the conclusions that we “must limit height and density” via the Capitol View Corridors. This was the point of my article.
Thomas Paine says
First off, Austin is a big town, I wouldn’t even go as far as labeling it a city. And the 20 or so people wandering aimlessly around the warehouse “district” during the day, taking their dogs to pee or delivering beer shipments shouldn’t count as “all day activity” for the imaginative sense it’s used to evoke here.
Simple truth is there is still no reason to be anywhere downtown during the day, unless working there. There isn’t one cultural or historically significant place to visit (maybe the AHC, but that’s a stretch), and the blame lies simply in the immaturity of Austin as a city, and the lazy foresight for protecting the small swath of historical charm downtown has. We’re talking about what, maybe 10 blocks of total area that might have the potential of distinguishing itself from other cities? Why take away even more? A perfect example of this disregard was the demolishing of the minimally burned Bitter End building. Regardless of the depth of it’s historical significance, the mere existence of it added some context to the age of Austin that no Westin hotel will convey. What we need are more projects like the reuse of the Seaholm plant, which is precisely the kind of thing people, residents and tourists alike, take pride in. I’m sure no one advocated for its demolishing?
My point is, interesting historical sites and architecture are in very small supply and to even consider it up for grabs is insane. Proponents of development bloat the benefits of density, but underestimate the attraction of storied spaces. It is critical to have both. Why on earth would anyone entertain the idea of replacing the warehouse district with more homogenized architecture commissioned by developers with no vision, no creativity, abysmal architects, and no respect for cultivating Austin, instead just “building” it?
I love Austin, but every time I come home I cringe as everything looks brand new, and nothing evokes a contrast of respect for our roots, where our city has been AND where it’s going. The contrast is key for interesting and prosperous pockets of density. As corny as it may seem, it is this contrast that coexists through every kind of cultural spectrum, be it human aging, religion, literature, design, anything! Incredibly, our cities are probably the most visible proponent of this symbiotic balance.
The wisdom inherit in understanding the old vs new is a sensibility that should not be taken for granted. To make Austin simply a city of the modern age is an insult to the creative history of this town and runs the risk of finding itself more of a spectacle (Dubai, anyone?) than a relevant city with a point of view.
Roger L. Cauvin says
“A perfect example of this disregard was the demolishing of the minimally burned Bitter End building.”
Please sit back and think about the implications of this statement. If we’re so desperate to find a piece of history to preserve that the old Bitter End building serves as an example of why we should stifle density in the Warehouse District, then I we’re in serious need of perspective.
“Why on earth would anyone entertain the idea of replacing the warehouse district with more homogenized architecture commissioned by developers with no vision, no creativity, abysmal architects, and no respect for cultivating Austin, instead just ‘building’ it?”
This is a fatalistic, overly simplistic portrayal of the options. If we don’t want homogenized and uncreative architecture, let’s figure out ways of cultivating imaginative and heterogeneous designs instead of jumping to the specious conclusion that we must limit height and density.
Since you bring up a comparison between the current Density Bonus proposal and CVCs it should be noted that this proposal is a *change* in property entitlements – not a taking. CVCs and the similar 45 ft height overlay that protects East 6th St. were instituted without compensating landowners at all. Introducing TDRs to Austin, as this proposal seeks to do, is a way of introducing an equitable planning mechanism, advocated by urbanists, and used by many cities across the country. In so doing, we can avoid this oversimplified argument of ‘a taking’ from a few individuals with many proxies and instead focus on the serious conversation of how we build on our successes as a vibrant downtown rather than build on the rubble of them.
…which is to say that the CVCs and the East 6th Street Overlay could be accurately described as a taking of property rights and the Density Bonus is hopefully a new model for avoiding that in the future, allowing the focus to be on the built environment itself.
I have a problem with designating property historic when nothing notable ever happened on it. The warehouse district is a misnomer because the last true warehouse moved out in the 1990s. The area was first populated by Mexican immigrants before the City red-lined them to the east side in the Jim Crow era. If anything, that should be the history promoted for the district, not what came next. These buildings are relatively nondescript structures, and the fact that they survive for decades after dozens of remodels and iterations shouldn’t qualify them for HD.
Jude Galligan says
I don’t disagree with you about the use of historic designation – it’s seems to be a means to an end. I think we all recognize that there really aren’t any/many true warehouses.
Semantics aside, would you agree that ‘Warehouse District’ is a destination worth saving?
Roger L. Cauvin says
Jude, I think the question of whether the Warehouse District is a destination worth saving implies a false dichotomy. It implies we have two choices: a vibrant destination largely unchanged or a substantially modified place that is no longer vibrant and no longer attracts people and activity.
I don’t buy into this dichotomy. I think it’s the kind of unenlightened, myopic view that preservationists typically can’t transcend in their thinking.
Couldn’t we end up with something different but better?