First announced a few months ago as a downtown Austin condo tower, the residential project bound for the corner of West 17th and Guadalupe Streets has taken a bit more distinct of a shape since the appearance of its first rendering from local architects Rhode Partners last month.
The development, a 27-story building by New York-based firm Reger Holdings, will replace the 1980s William Gammon Insurance building at 1615 Guadalupe Street — but in new documents filed with the city in preparation for its appearance at a meeting of the Design Commission earlier this week, the project actually uses the address 313 West 17th Street. (It doesn’t really matter, we’re just trying to be precise.)
Speaking of precise, when the tower first came on the scene earlier this year, everyone seemed pretty confident about its residential usage being condos — but in these new documents including the graphic below, the building is described as containing 117 apartment units. We were going to stick with “residential,” but it’s now been confirmed to us by the developer that they are, in fact, condos.
Brockett Davidson, an architect at Rhode Partners, went before the commission Monday presenting the building’s many features in preparation for the body to rule on its compliance with the city’s Urban Design Guidelines, the first step on the road to attaining the extra density the tower needs to build to the dimensions seen here. Surprisingly enough, commissioners had some criticisms of the building as it’s presented in these documents — previous reporting sums up the meeting well enough that we don’t need to recap it fully here, so let’s just quote it instead:
During the June 24 meeting, Commissioner Evan Taniguchi questioned how sustainable the project could be given the amount of parking — 194 spaces — planned on a major transit corridor.
“We feel like the density bonus shouldn’t be getting extra parking spaces,” Taniguchi said. “We want people downtown. We don’t want extra cars.”
“If you’re tripling the size of the project, just providing more parking is unjust to the entire density bonus program,” Commissioner Samuel Franco added. “Tripling the size of a project and not going full force from the design standpoint, not going full force and going above the bar, I think is not acceptable… It doesn’t have to be that way.”
Commission Chairman David Carroll said the project was underwhelming in promoting pedestrian activity beyond the corner that would feature the art gallery.
“I don’t just think throwing some tables and chairs out in the right of way creates a pedestrian experience,” Carroll said. “I just don’t see anyone wanting to hang out in this space other than that corner.”
In the end, the project didn’t manage to attain the necessary 6-vote majority by the 11-member commission to achieve its recommendation of compliance with the design guidelines, and will have to return to try again (potentially with a handful of design tweaks under its belt) at the next meeting in August.
The commission’s two main criticisms of the project — that its 192 parking spaces is too many for a 117-unit residential building on one of the city’s core transit corridors; and that its street-level environment wasn’t quite pedestrian-friendly enough — are certainly valid topics for discussion, but they feel a little harsh compared with past treatment of similar projects.
For example, the 44 East Avenue condo tower planned in the Rainey Street District, which the commission voted unanimously to recommend in compliance with the Urban Design Guidelines at its March meeting this year, has 558 parking spaces for its 322 units, giving the building a unit-to-parking ratio of 1.73 spaces per unit. The 17th and Guadalupe project, on the other hand, has 1.64 spaces per unit. For what it’s worth, both projects sought the same density bonus for a 15:1 floor-to-area ratio.
This isn’t an exact comparison, since the two buildings have different amounts of retail space, which slightly changes their respective parking requirements — 3,527 square feet at 44 East and 5,200 square feet at 17th and Guadalupe — but it’s still something to note, especially since those respective square footages only seem to further imply the 17th and Guadalupe project’s parking count isn’t super out of line.
It’s true also that the latter tower is a little closer to the center of downtown than 44 East, but is its location on a major transit corridor enough to warrant such stricter scrutiny? That’s not a call we can make, and as well-documented haters of giant parking podiums we’re not going to complain about the design commission starting the conversation — it just feels more than a little arbitrary to do it here.
The criticism of the building’s pedestrian experience doesn’t make complete sense either. Interpretation of a project’s adherence to design guidelines is always going to contain an element of subjectivity, but the comments from commissioners about this building needing to go “above the bar” seemingly in exchange for “tripling the size of [the] project” also don’t really track with us — after all, the Downtown Density Bonus Program isn’t a negotiation, or at least it isn’t supposed to be. The Design Commission’s role is to verify whether an applicant has met its requirements, and in this case, it appears the building has.
As shown in the renderings and illustrations here, it contains an art gallery space facing 17th Street, along with some sort of additional retail — perhaps even a grocery store, though we’ve seen that sort of thing fall through before — facing Guadalupe Street. In our opinion, those two street-level activations are far more meaningful to the emerging neighborhood than other downtown projects that don’t seem to have experienced such a challenge securing their bonus recommendations.
In the end, the building was only two votes short of passing, which doesn’t feel like particularly insurmountable odds. A few adjustments to its parking strategy and/or street-level improvements would likely secure its approval in August, but it’s still interesting to see the commission take this role — and it will be even more interesting to see if they hold future projects to these specific standards.