The East Riverside Gateway project planned by local real estate firm PlaceMKR would bring roughly 2 million square feet of mixed-use development to the intersection of East Riverside Drive and Highway 71 in Southeast Austin, creating a seven-building complex containing more than 1,000 residential units and three office towers connected by a walkable streetscape of ground-level retail. The plan is currently in the entitlement phase, and has recently submitted its site development permit to the city.
The project site, located at the southwest corner of the intersection atop tracts formerly occupied by a storage facility and mobile home park, is directly adjacent to the planned Metro Center station of Project Connect’s upcoming Blue Line, which is set to provide access from downtown all the way to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The Metro Center station is the last stop on the line before reaching the airport, making the project’s status as a gateway to the East Riverside area more than just a branding exercise — it’s one of the first things you’ll see upon arrival to Austin if you’re riding the Blue Line into downtown.
Since our first look at the project last year, we’ve now learned more about what’s planned for the East Riverside Gateway from the local offices of international architecture firm Steinberg Hart, designing the site with help from local landscape studio dwg. A recent press release from Steinberg Hart outlining the project’s design team takes care to note that firm president David Hart is actually an Austin native, while partners Douglas Moss and Asheshh Saheba heading up the Gateway project team are both native Texans. (It’s not like recent Austin projects designed by firms from, say, Chicago, lack some sort of intrinsic local character, but the involvement of designers who have actually spent lots of time around here is always a nice bonus.)
The master plan’s organization promotes the pedestrian experience, creating a vibrant and walkable neighborhood that celebrates its connection to nature; plans account for the retention of the site’s numerous heritage trees. The 3.5-acre urban park is linear, straddling the new development and its existing neighborhood and connecting it to its context. The park includes an area dedicated to the restoration of the area’s native Blackland prairie habitat. Designed to draw pedestrians in, the park’s programming inspires outdoor activities with a trailhead, bike path, playground, dog runs, and an outdoor pavilion area that can house community events and performances.
— Steinberg Hart Press Release
Looming large in the design narrative of the project plan is its 3.5-acre urban park, which splits the development site in linear fashion from the area’s existing neighborhoods — a welcome amenity but probably also a good way to address the obnoxious compatibility regulations imposed by nearby single-family homes. The plan places its most intense uses closer to the intersection, potentially reaching heights of up to 160 feet under the corridor’s density bonus program, stepping back into lower-density residential use at the rear of the site closer to existing residential areas.
But although it’s seemingly a well-designed and good-looking plan, there’s one puzzling aspect of the East Riverside Gateway development that points to a lack of confidence in Project Connect’s ability to attract car-free users this far from downtown. Let’s see if you can spot it at the end of this paragraph:
The urban mixed-use development will include over two million square feet of office, retail, and residential space alongside a plethora of amenities to draw tech workers and young families, including a large urban park. Three office buildings are organized around a central plaza to create a pedestrian connection to the planned mass transit, multi-modal Riverside corridor. Four amenity-packed multi-family buildings provide 1,100 residential units at a range of price points: from high-end condominiums to larger, family-oriented residences, as well as more compact, attainable units and affordable housing. All seven buildings are connected through a ground-floor retail corridor that enhances the streetscape. The project also includes a total of 4,000 parking spaces.
— Steinberg Hart Press Release
Including 4,000 spaces of structured parking seems like an indication that, while the upcoming presence of a light rail station directly adjacent to this project is a wonderful amenity, there’s simply no reason for the developers to stick their necks out and assume that Project Connect will provide transit infrastructure sometime in the next decade or so that’s good enough for the plan to significantly reduce its parking ratios, especially when office use is involved. From a more practical perspective, it’s unlikely that a car-lite version of this project could even secure financing due to the increased risk — we’ve seen that happen around here before.
The buildings’ design reflects the character and climate of Austin, with solar shading to minimize heat gain, double-height porches, and numerous balconies. Lush landscaping at the podium level and woven throughout the neighborhood’s blocks create a cooling reprieve from the Texas heat. “This development will be a central hub of activity, bringing residents, office workers, shoppers, and recreational visitors alike to the area on foot, by rail, and by car. Being involved from the earliest stages of master planning made for a truly holistic design process,” shared design leader Saheba. We’ve thought about every aspect of the user experience at every scale: the size of the city blocks and their organization, the unit mix and the size of the office floor plates, and the Austinite taking public transit and walking home from this new rail station. East Riverside Gateway is a truly transformative vision of the future of Austin.”
— Steinberg Hart Press Release
At this early stage of the process, the only way we can see the city incentivizing transit-friendly growth until Project Connect is actually a done deal is providing significant density bonuses near its upcoming stations, with the stipulation that parking structures built at these sites be designed for easy retrofitting once rail comes to town — and since designing garages this way represents a notable added cost, you’d better provide a lot of extra height in return. Can we make that happen?