The hotel tower planned at the southwest corner of East Fifth and Trinity Streets in downtown Austin by prolific local hospitality developers White Lodging will contain 260 rooms in a 13-story building, according to recent city documents. The quarter-block site now preparing for development includes neighboring tracts at 307 and 311 East Fifth Street, occupied respectively by downtown restaurant Russian House — sorry, it’s actually just “House” now — and the defunct event venue Trinity Hall, which will both need to be demolished prior to the new hotel’s construction. (The House formerly known as Russian House plans to reestablish itself in a new location.)
You may ask yourself why a new tower in a rapidly-rising district of downtown would reach only 13 floors, and it’s an especially odd lack of height given that its location is unconstrained by Capitol View Corridors. But there’s another invisible wall holding this site back from rising taller — its location across the street from Brush Square places the project under the restrictions of the Downtown Parks Overlay District, a little-known zoning category imposing a setback requirement on any building rising more than 120 feet tall within 60 feet of one of downtown’s three public squares. You can see this height limit and setback requirement in action over at Republic Square, where the neighboring Hotel ZaZa / Gables Republic Square and Plaza Lofts towers both stay beneath the 120-foot limit, with the ZaZa visibly pulling back significantly from Guadalupe Street before rising any higher to avoid the overlay.
According to sources familiar with the White Lodging project, the corner property’s owners at local investment firm the Finley Company originally considered significantly taller office and residential tower plans for this site, but the setback requirements here made both projects financially infeasible. To achieve contiguous floorplates large enough for an office tower, the development would have needed to expand its footprint west to contain the current site of longtime Austin blues club Antone’s — and although the Finley Company also owns that land, the idea of forcing out this iconic local business just wasn’t worth it for anyone involved.
The setback’s reduction of buildable square footage also apparently made a residential tower difficult to pencil in this location, while a hotel — rumored to be part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection — fits perfectly within the constraints of the overlay. In the eyes of the code, Brush Square (and thus the setback it imposes) occupies a full city block, but the situation on the ground looks different — the part of the square near the Fifth and Trinity corner is fully occupied by Austin Central Fire Station No. 1, meaning the setback protects this view rather than the park space you’d expect:
In the end, it’s just another way our city’s antique land development code incentivizes projects that might not otherwise seem like the highest and best use of valuable land. Setback requirements, broadly speaking, are not particularly helpful for guiding the design of buildings or spaces that people actually enjoy, which is probably why so many of Austin’s most memorable places were built under planned unit developments or other special districts that relax these zoning restrictions. The parks overlay surrounding downtown’s public squares, originally intended to protect these spaces by keeping them free from shadows and increasing their visibility to the surrounding area, now feels an awful lot like a relic of a less vibrant downtown.
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