Earlier this year, we learned that a 350-unit apartment and retail project by national developers Ryan Companies would finally fill the vacant lot surrounding the Central Austin neighborhood’s former control tower, one of the few signs left of Mueller’s past life as an airport. Though images and details of the new project emphasized its embrace of the historic tower as a centerpiece — with a pedestrian paseo cutting through the block to ensure the best views possible of its classic design by famed local midcentury design duo Fehr & Granger — the project’s announcement didn’t include much detail on how exactly the tower would fit into the new development beyond stating that it would be surrounded by an outdoor plaza space.
Now, thanks to a presentation at a community meeting late last month by Ryan Companies, alongside Mueller developers Catellus and local design firms McCann Adams Studio, Carter Design Associates, and Studio Balcones, we’ve got a slightly better understanding of how a project here might utilize this historic amenity to create a world-class public space at the heart of the neighborhood.
The possibility of getting the public inside the tower is still an open question, since doing so would require some serious safety modifications to get the structure up to code — but the concepts presented here at least allow visitors to see the tower up close with a variety of creative approaches. Studio Balcones presented three possible designs for the plaza surrounding the tower, and we’ll take a look at each one below.
Concept A: “Flight Path”
This first plaza concept links the project’s central paseo to an observation deck surrounding the tower by means of a meandering ADA-accessible pedestrian path, which curves through landscaped spaces including two “milkweed meadows” and an amphitheater and rises to cross the ground-level paseo with a small bridge.
The elevated deck around the tower’s base, 21 feet off the ground as seen in the side profile illustration below, features a look inspired by Fehr & Granger’s whimsical design for the former airport’s shade structure and terminal, specifically its extremely midcentury scalloped roofline we’ve also seen described as a “folded plate roof.”
Concept B: “Flight Deck”
This second concept is somewhat similar to the first in its construction of an observation deck around the tower, but the deck here is larger — it’s called “Flight Deck,” after all — and the path to reach it more compact than the previous design.
Rather than the meadows and amphitheater of the previous design, this concept expands the ground-level paseo with multiple paved paths traveling through a “plaza shade grove” of trees along with a small lawn space. Though it’s not explored much in these slides, the larger elevated deck around the control tower could potentially provide room for a glass-walled pavilion around the tower’s base, apparently inspired by the Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art.
Concept C: “Tower Forest”
Very different from the previous two plans, Concept C extends the paseo into a large grove of trees and small landscaped meadow spaces, emphasizing nature with features intended to encourage the nesting of chimney swifts.
A small ground-level courtyard surrounds the tower rather than an elevated deck, and space for outdoor seating is provided on one side of the plaza for the retail space of an expected future development at the site.
Though it’s unclear at the moment how much influence the public will have in choosing between these design concepts, we think Concept A, or “Flight Path,” is the clear winner — the design of its elevated deck evokes the classic midcentury look of Mueller’s now-demolished terminal, and the curves of its elevated path to the deck also reflect the graceful lines and overall spirit of the original architecture at this site far more than the other two concepts, which both seem a bit muddled and inelegant in their accommodation of the historic tower by comparison.
In any case, we’ll likely get a few more chances to gawk and sound off on this project as it moves forward, but for now, the Mueller representatives at the meeting say they’ll review all comments sent to their contact page. Just try to pick one.