By all accounts, Austin’s only Hooters restaurant is pretty bad — and that’s even by Hooters standards, which means something’s somehow falling through the cracks between the Sysco truck and the microwave. If nothing else, the joint is a fun reminder of the good ol’ days of Austin when a restaurant about 2,000 feet from downtown got to have a parking lot roughly six times larger than its actual building.
Anyway, no one appears to be shedding a tear for the impending demise of the wing-and-lech outfit currently doing its best to pervert the legacy of Charles M. Schulz — yes, that one — at the intersection of South First Street and West Riverside Drive, which should soon find itself scrubbed from our collective memory and replaced by RiverSouth, a 15-story mixed-use project bringing more than 300,000 square feet of offices and about 18,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space to the site, which, along with the aforementioned Hooters, is currently occupied mostly by a decrepit and enormous parking lot.
The project, using the address 401 South First Street, is a Stream Realty Partners concern, with additional help from the Beck Group, Big Red Dog, Cardno, dwg., and MEJ & Associates. Set to deliver in early 2021, it’ll occupy the triangular plot bound by South First Street, West Riverside Drive, and Barton Springs Road, and the odd shape of the site comes through in the look of the building — which as we’ve said before has a distinct “Jawa Sandcrawler”-type vibe.
If you haven’t heard, there’s a sort of arms race on for office developers looking to attract tech firms and other big-name tenants with increasingly swanky amenities packages, and the RiverSouth project is no different, with its design including features like a 15th-floor sky lounge space, a bike valet service (!) and an on-site fitness “studio,” which I presume is way better than a “center.”
There are also several green-minded touches in the building, including a seventh-story roof garden terrace that will, along with other rain garden installations, apparently treat 100 percent of the site’s captured stormwater. Irrigation for these and other landscape features will depend entirely on condensate recapture from the building’s HVAC technology, and the structure also includes a connection to the city’s “purple pipe” network, which conserves water by recycling treated sewage effluent for use in non-potable systems like cooling towers. The project’s seeking a LEED Gold certification, along with a three-star rating in Austin Energy’s green building program.
But even a very cool office is still just an office, and unless you’re an employee for one of RiverSouth’s future tenants, most of these amenities probably don’t mean very much to you — other than the ground-floor retail spaces, of course, which will likely deliver a much more interesting restaurant than Hooters.
Still, there’s a big reason to take note of this building’s development whether or not you work there: RiverSouth represents the first piece of the puzzle in the South Central Waterfront Initiative, a planning effort adopted in 2016 by the City of Austin intended to create a framework of recommendations and development tools for the 118-acre area directly south of the river from downtown.
As Austin’s growth continues, it becomes increasingly obvious that much of the south central region isn’t really living up to the potential density enabled by its downtown-adjacent location, and the SCWI is the city’s effort towards changing that with a unified planning vision. If all goes well, you can expect the initiative to incentivize the transformation of properties like the woefully underutilized Austin American-Statesman site, the nearby office buildings housing the Texas Department of Transportation, the doomed Threadgill’s World Headquarters, and even the lakefront Joe’s Crab Shack at 600 East Riverside Drive — which, like Hooters, is a property with a pretty good view of the skyline for just selling chain food next to a big parking lot.
Feel free to read through the plan’s 114 pages of urban planning wonklish if you’d like, but in short, the SCWI is intended to promote the redevelopment of these and other underachieving properties in the area by offering increased density entitlements to projects that meet the framework’s community benefit requirements, which include “public realm” improvements like better streetscapes, bike lanes, and trail connectivity, along with “hundreds of units” of affordable housing. The bonuses provided by the initiative would give an economic incentive to developers who might otherwise not see enough return on their investment to redevelop these properties under the area’s existing zoning regulations and other standards, which are generally more limiting of growth.
Alan Holt, a principal planner at the city’s Planning and Zoning Department, says RiverSouth is the first development to seek zoning approval within the SCWI district since the adoption of the plan in 2016. Problem is, the city still hasn’t worked through all the steps necessary to actually implement the plan — Holt says many requirements are yet to be adopted, which required a more complicated approach from the city.
“The trick was that the city hadn’t accomplished the key implementation items that would have allowed for a straightforward process of granting the entitlements and community benefit contributions. So, the developer pursued a Planned Unit Development (PUD) process, and the city and developer sought to negotiate the PUD, based on the framework from the SCW Plan. As a result, the developer will provide in-kind and cash contributions, valued at $3.1 million, for off-site transportation improvements, protected bike lanes, district piping for reclaimed water, rain gardens, and affordable housing. On site, the project will set a new high bar for streetscapes, street trees and landscaping, water quality treatment, and green building systems.”
— Alan Holt, Principal Planner, City of Austin
The negotiation of the PUD at RiverSouth between the developer and the city, Holt says, turned out to be a benefit to the initiative — as the first project seeking the city’s approval under the plan, it’s set a higher bar for future development in the district, and it explains some of the green features of the building we described earlier.
“The PUD negotiation resulted in pushing the onsite environmental standards, and many of these PUD standards are now incorporated into the draft of the SCW Regulating Plan,” he says. “A few of these new high standards include requiring a minimum of 1,000 cubic feet of soil volume per street tree; requiring onsite water quality treatment (no fee-in-lieu); required landscape irrigation with onsite non-potable water reuse systems (rainwater collection; condensate; etc); dual distribution piping within buildings to separate potable water and reclaimed water; and other wonky things that raise the bar for all projects in the future.”
Man, wonky things is right. But you don’t have to get excited about soil volume or water reclamation to grasp what this project could represent for the future of its district. As the first development to seek the initiative’s approval, Holt says RiverSouth has required some serious progress on the city’s end towards implementing key items that would make future developments in the SCWI district a lot more straightforward. In other words, this building is blazing a trail that others will hopefully soon follow, and that’s good news for everyone — well, except for Hooters.