At last night’s WCCAC meeting:
Downtown Austin’s Waller Creek District and tunnel project continues to get more interesting. At last night’s meeting of the Waller Creek Citizens Advisory Committee we covered a lot of ground.
1) 21c developer, Poe Companies, updated us on the status of the project. They’re actively pursuing stakeholder input, so I’m comfortable saying that this the only new residential project in downtown Austin that still has legs. The site plan calls for three structures: 1) apartments 2) hotel 3) future site tbd. The condos are out, for now, but could be built on the future site. The current focus is a 31 story, 350 unit apartment tower at the southwest corner of Red River and Cesar Chavez. The tower would provide 400,000 inhabitable square feet with target lease rates from $1.50-2.50 per foot. Steve Poe anticipated a unit mix of 70% 1bd/1ba. They are volunteering 10% of the units to meet affordable housing standards (80% MFI), although they are not required to provide any. There will also be ~10 artist studios facing the creek. It’s unknown how these units will be priced. When asked about quality of construction, we were guided to look at AMLI on 2nd as a comparison. This proposed downtown Austin apartment tower is fully entitled (needs no variances), and the only hurdle is locking in the funding, which they are seeking a substantial portion of through the HUD 211(s)(4) loan program for multi-family development.
The hotel concept would be located closer to the corner of Davis St and Red River. It would have have 200-250 keys spread across 12 stories and 225,000 inhabitable feet. In the near term, the hotel is less certain to be built than the apartment tower, as it is more challenging to find financing for a hotel – I find this ironic given that Austin has a shortage of hotels and [some would argue] a surplus of apartments. Such is the state of the financial markets.
After several years of tunnel planning work, this is the first project to come before the WCCAC. The development team seems to be very progressive and in tune with the Waller Creek District Master Plan. They understand the importance of public space and improving public connections from Red River into Waller Creek trails. The earliest the project could begin is mid-2010, and I’m optimistic they will obtain their funding.
One of the most important questions you’ll see asked of every project that comes before the WCCAC is the estimated contribution to the TIF. The $120MM bond that pays for the tunnel improvements is paid back through the incremental increase in ad-valorem taxes along the creek. 21c estimated that it would generate $1MM per year ($20MM over twenty years), to repayment of the bond.
2) A summary of the Waller Creek District Draft Development Standards were presented by city staff. This is a set of guidelines to reinforce the vision for Waller Creek as identified in the master plan. Sub-districts are defined which spell out appropriate design for each sub-district. These rules could be codified into law within the next 6-9 months. It’s good that we’re establishing these guidelines now. City council could potentially allow development to begin along the creek on a case-by-case basis by providing variances from building in the floodplain prior to completion of the tunnel. Depending on the timing of adopting these development standards, the 21c project may/may not be subject to them.
3) The WCCAC has been trying to find a way to assure world-class design standards along the creek while working within the legal constraints of the city’s procurement processes. Currently, the city will hire a firm capable of delivering a product. THEN they seek input to design the product. The city hires the firm before knowing what the final design looks like. This process precludes “design competitions”, but the WCCAC has a much better understanding of how and to deliver aesthetic design input. With enough lead time, a private sector “design competition” could occur such that the winner’s concept is delivered to the firm hired by the City, via the WCCAC.