Demolition is currently underway at the southwest corner of 14th and Lavaca Streets in downtown Austin, clearing a number of unused properties in preparation for a residential tower development by local builders Pearlstone Partners — and while the site doesn’t really look different from any other downtown demolition at the moment, the project taking shape here at the corner symbolizes the first positive outcome of a policy change adopted by Austin’s City Council earlier this year.
A successful resolution passed unanimously in May relaxed the limits on building heights in the Capitol Dominance Overlay District of downtown by allowing properties in the area to participate in the Downtown Density Bonus Program, thus freeing them to rise taller than before. The Capitol Dominance Overlay — unlike the better-known Capitol View Corridors protecting specific views of the Capitol dome from being blocked by new construction — is an indiscriminate limit on height and density you can visualize as an imaginary plane radiating out at an upward angle from the Capitol for a quarter-mile around in all directions.
As described in city code after its adoption in the 1980s, the overlay was meant to “protect the visual and symbolic significance of the State Capitol by keeping buildings in close proximity of the Capitol from dominating the structure” — and this blanket provision made a bit more sense for the lower-density downtown of the 1980s, but in the modern context this overlay ensures the region directly adjacent to the Capitol is dominated by surface parking lots, parking garages, and low-rise buildings.
As we’ve mentioned before, the CDO is directly opposed to the denser land use of projects like the Texas Capitol Complex and nearby transit-oriented development goals of Project Connect, and we were proud to see the resolution cross the finish line — ironically with sponsorship from District 1 Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, rather than the council member allegedly representing downtown who seems to do so with extreme reluctance.
With all that exposition out of the way, you might begin to grasp the significance of Pearlstone’s 14th and Lavaca project. The developer’s previous plans for the site were capped at roughly 13 floors, a size more suitable for a hotel than a residential tower — with the ability to rise past the limits of the overlay, a tower here could gain another 150 feet of height to reach 30 floors or more, with Pearlstone’s own study by local architects STG Design indicating the larger residential building could increase its unit count by 72 for a total yield of 234 new homes, while providing an additional $1 million in affordable housing funds to the city through the Density Bonus Program. The shorter and taller hypothetical buildings for the site are seen below:
While any new tower is bad news for some Austinites, we’re of the opinion that if you’re going to build downtown, there shouldn’t be any arbitrary limits on that growth preventing you from maximizing the utility of your property, especially when there’s extra money for the city on the table. As long as our Capitol View Corridors still exist — and no, we aren’t trying to get rid of those — the CDO is just another relic of an older downtown, which is probably why Council didn’t have a hard time tweaking its rules. While Pearlstone says the design for the tower is still a work in progress, the developer confirms it will take advantage of the added height that’s now possible here — meaning the building should become a sort of monument to smart urban policy.