Though Austin is still a fairly young city in terms of its central growth, our portfolio of full downtown city blocks suitable for tower development gets smaller every year. With limits imposed upon many such tracts by Capitol View Corridors, the presence of historic buildings, or multiple property owners requiring lengthy and complex land assemblies by any aspiring developer, the blocks free from such pesky constraints are naturally the target of speculation.
“Speculation” has two definitions here — financial, for the companies buying these tracts and sitting on them for years; and public, for the Austinites wondering during those same years how long it will take for someone to actually build something there. This is certainly the case for the vacant former U.S. Post Office building occupying a full block at the southwestern corner of Sixth and Guadalupe Streets — a building so ill-suited for its location that the perceived physical and symbolic offenses it leveled against the public by simply existing arguably changed the course of Austin’s history.
Decades before the opening of the post office at 510 Guadalupe Street in March 1996, the character of downtown Austin’s Block 52 was typical for the Warehouse District at the time, with various commercial and industrial properties located here over the years including a used car dealership operated by the locally-prominent Covert family. In the 1880s, a home belonging to a Mr. and Mrs. Will Anderson occupied the northeastern corner of the tract, and short story writer William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry, rented a room here for six months with his new wife Athol after their elopement in 1887 — perhaps the block’s only brush with fame.
Developing a low-rise post office on what appears to modern eyes such a seemingly prime downtown tract was somewhat a product of its time — though Austin saw plenty of growth during the 1990s, nothing over 15 floors in height went up downtown between 1987 and 2002. Still, the utterly suburban appearance of the facility, appearing to the casual observer less like a post office and more like a small parking garage with an oversized kiosk for its attendants jutting out at one corner, was immediately disappointing for growth-minded Austinites. A brief Austin American-Statesman blurb about the facility’s grand opening provides a helpful clue regarding the motivations behind its design by including the word “parking” six times:
The Statesman itself declared the post office “the least popular new building in Austin” three years later in a 1999 roundup of comments on unattractive recent local architecture submitted anonymously by the city’s design community. “This concrete pillbox rejects any hope of sympathy with its hard edges, anti-pedestrian access and raised-wart profile,” the entry explained.
The beautiful northwestern corner of the postal building. Woo-hoo!
As with more recent examples, these criticisms can sometimes feel slightly exaggerated. Removed from its surroundings, the actual post office part of the structure is fairly inoffensive, perhaps even mildly charming — really, the building’s worst sin is that it’s immediately forgettable — but the visible unfriendliness of the block’s full complex, fortified against the streets on all sides by the walled-off parking garage surrounding it, has grown even less acceptable with time. To be fair, part of why it aged so badly is because the rest of downtown Austin built itself in direct reaction to the post office’s disappointing design, following guidelines set by the city after the fact to ensure a building like this could never happen again.
That’s not an exaggeration. Quickly after the post office opened, in 1997 the Austin City Council responded to public indignation regarding its design by tasking the city’s Design Commission to draft a set of new downtown design guidelines. Drawing upon previous initiatives and planning documents by groups like the Heritage Society of Austin (now Preservation Austin) — which also explicitly referenced the post office as one of the buildings it hoped to avoid with the help of new guidelines — the commission assembled a design document based on a set of community values emphasizing open space, walkability, street-facing storefronts, and other pleasurable possibilities of urban density new buildings could create by following such a vision.
“It was a mistake that just happened because nobody was watching.”
— Matt Kreisle, Heritage Society of Austin
Adopted by City Council in 2000, the Downtown Austin Design Guidelines were revised in 2008 to become the city’s current Urban Design Guidelines, which all new buildings must follow in order to participate in Austin’s Downtown Density Bonus Program — meaning nearly every tall tower in downtown is designed, whether its architects know it or not, in accordance with guidelines drafted at least somewhat in reaction to one bad building. The shadowy influence of the post office extends past the walls of new buildings all the way to the streets themselves, with the master plan document for Austin’s Great Streets Program explicitly naming the original Downtown Austin Design Guidelines as its inspiration:
The goal of the Great Streets program is to provide a master plan as an instrument to pursue this vision of streets for people. This vision stems from the Downtown Austin Design Guidelines, adopted by City Council in 2000. The Design Guidelines established a set of values for downtown development, including authenticity, history, safety, diversity, density, and economic vitality.
— City of Austin Great Streets Master Plan, 2001
Compared with its impact on the design of the city we see rising around us in the present day, the rest of the site’s history is pretty boring — or at least barely exists outside of a few architects’ computers. A visit to the property in 2019 will quickly remind you that the post office complex, though closed since 2012, is still very much there, now used only as a parking lot rather than a parking lot with a small post office attached as a bonus. The U.S. Postal Service requested offers from developers for the block’s redevelopment in 2006, with the winning bid submitted by a partnership of Atlanta developers Novare Group — known for the 360 Condominiums and the Rainey Street District’s SkyHouse Apartments — and Austin firm Andrews Urban.
In 2007, the two firms planned a large complex on both the post office site and the block immediately to its west, with the western block containing a 35-floor condo tower called Ovation — which among other features would include space for a new postal facility, enabling the development of an additional 40-story condo and hotel tower on the old post office block.
The 2008 financial crisis put a bullet in that plan, at least in the configuration first announced and seen in the images above, though Endeavor Real Estate Group brought us IBC Bank Plaza on the block directly west of the post office site in 2014. A reconfigured partnership of Novare, Andrews, and Endeavor announced its purchase of the post office property from the USPS in 2011, with a new facility located in the 823 Congress tower after the old office’s closure in 2012. Development was considered imminent once again at the site, but eight years later, we haven’t seen so much as a permit for the old post office building’s demolition.
Representatives for Novare indicate the developer is unable to comment on its plans at this time, but with Austin’s tallest tower in the early stages directly north of the post office block, not to mention what’s happening on the two blocks just south of it, it’s easy to wonder what the future holds here. Nearly anything built at this site would represent a huge improvement, but on balance, you might still argue the post office ended up being pretty good for Austin — the policy changes inspired by its many failures ensured an entire generation of better, more human-focused buildings.