Though we’re getting taller all the time, skyscraper development in Austin really boomed during the 1980s. Between 1980 and 1987, 12 buildings with 15 or more floors opened in the downtown area, including the cluster of earth-toned towers — One American Center, One Eleven Congress, 100 Congress, 301 Congress, and San Jacinto Center — that defined the “Old Austin” skyline for nearly 20 years until the Frost Bank Tower arrived on the scene in 2004.
The final gasp of that ’80s boom — and in fact the very last building over 15 floors built in downtown Austin until the rather forgettable 300 West Sixth office tower opened in 2002 — was a 21-story office tower clad in Texas limestone and pink granite at San Jacinto Center, the most visible component of a complex of buildings spanning two adjacent downtown blocks just north of Lady Bird Lake at 98 San Jacinto Boulevard. At present, the site contains the office tower on its western side, the Four Seasons Hotel overlooking the lake, and the more recently-built Four Seasons Residences, a 32-story condo tower completed in 2010, at the eastern end of the property opposite the office tower. Here’s the whole family getting along together:
Still, the appearance of the site in the present day might fool you — the story of development at San Jacinto Center spans decades, with plenty of false starts along the way. It all kicked off roughly 180 years ago, or thereabouts — the land now occupied by the San Jacinto Center complex doesn’t even show up on Edwin Waller’s original 1839 plan for the City of Austin, which didn’t include any numbered blocks south of Water Street (now called Cesar Chavez Street).
By 1853, an updated version of the plan shows extra blocks laid out east of Congress Avenue around the mouth of Waller Creek, and their late addition gave them high numbers: Blocks 181 and 182, with an additional small angled plot of land directly south of Block 182 following the bank of the river, labeled Block 184. These three tracts would eventually find San Jacinto Center plunked down on top of them, but for more than a century after Austin’s founding, they were occupied only by homes and a few businesses — which you can see on cartographer Augustus Koch’s hand-illustrated maps of the city from 1873 and 1887; and later in aerial photos of the region.
After the development of projects like San Jacinto Center and the Lakeside Apartments complex one block to the east, Willow Street, which used to run one block south of Water Street and provided access to homes and businesses located directly against the north shore of the lake, now barely exists west of I-35. You’ll find a small remaining downtown stub of Willow Street near the intersection of Red River and Driskill Streets in the Rainey Street District, but the rest is east of the highway.
There isn’t much record of the homes located in the area where the San Jacinto Center now stands, but a few photos do exist, courtesy of the archival efforts of the Texas Historical Commission. Whether these properties were relocated or simply demolished is unknown.
In the late 1970s, as Austin’s civic leaders struggled to revitalize an increasingly lifeless downtown, City Council identified the roughly 48-acre region bound by Guadalupe Street, Third Street, I-35, and the lake as a declining district primed for urban renewal, and proposed the city purchase these properties and demolish the structures atop them to make way for a series of sweeping master-planned developments facilitated via public-private partnerships.
These plans, including offices, hotels, condos, a new city hall, a convention center, and possibly a monorail connecting them all, were devised by the American City Corporation, a subsidiary of shopping mall development firm the Rouse Company — its founder, James W. Rouse, is actually credited with coining the phrase “urban renewal.” After widespread outcry from the public, the Council voted to cancel its contract with the planners, but even the brief consideration of the idea implied a willingness on the part of the city to grant private developers a great deal of freedom in their pursuits, if only in the interest of pulling downtown back from the brink.
This likely explains the Council’s unanimous vote a few years later granting easements to Dallas-based developers Southland Investment Properties for its placement of San Jacinto Center atop Willow Street — since the early 1970s, Southland’s founder Ben H. Carpenter had worked to develop Las Colinas, a roughly 12,000-acre master-planned community of offices, hotels, and homes near Irving. Though the San Jacinto project was far smaller in scale, its mix of uses — hotel, office, and retail space spread between multiple buildings with additional landscape improvements to the surrounding shoreline and trail areas as a bonus — probably hit the same notes the earlier master plan was trying to sing: a one-stop urban center for the downtown dweller in a part of town that needed it most.
This brings us to the actual plans for San Jacinto Center, and you’ll quickly notice the difference between what’s drawn here and what’s there now — Southland’s original proposal for the center, designed by Dallas architecture firm HKS, imagined twin office towers on either side of the Four Seasons. You’ll find this configuration in some of the early promotions for the project, and it appears the developer’s plan was to complete the center in phases, with the second tower going up a little later.
The first tower and hotel portion of the project broke ground in July 1985 and celebrated its grand opening in January 1987, but by then, things weren’t looking so great for Southland, or the real estate market in general — in an article published only seven months after the San Jacinto Center’s grand opening, John Carpenter, who had taken over the company since his father’s retirement in 1986, didn’t have much good to say about the project’s leasing numbers.
Southland’s lender for the development, Manufacturers Hanover Corporation, repossessed the property in 1988, only a year after it opened. So much for that second tower — its planned location was now the site of a parking lot for the hotel.
Southland Investment Properties, the Dallas-based developer of the Four Seasons Hotel and San Jacinto Center Town Lake has settled a lender liability suit against Manufacturer’s Hanover Trust Co. of New York. The terms of the settlement were not released. Southland sued the bank holding company March 17, just before Manufacturer’s Hanover, the lender on the two projects, foreclosed on the 308-room hotel and 386,908-square-foot office tower. The properties are on the north shore of Town Lake, just east of the Congress Avenue bridge. Southland, a subsidiary of publicly held Southland Financial Corp., claimed Manufacturer’s Hanover reneged on promises of additional construction financing and prevented it from leasing 105,000 square feet to International Business Machines Corp. More than 60 percent of the project would have been occupied if the IBM lease had been consummated, Southland claimed.
— Austin American-Statesman, February 10, 1989
Well, not so fast. The site changed hands a few times in the early 1990s, but in May 1996, some wild-eyed folks out of Houston hoped to finally complete the twin tower on the east side of the property as office space for a New York pension fund. The response from the local real estate community was amusing:
“If someone is going to build an office building downtown, they need to have their head examined,” said Tim Hendricks, marketing director of Faison Stone which owns and leases the 430,000 square-foot Frost Bank Plaza. “This market is just now stabilizing and if you build another building, it could really put a tailspin on things.”
By December 1996, the plan was on hold, and never heard from again. In 2000, investors hoped to instead build a condo tower at the San Jacinto site:
Prices at the planned Four Seasons Residences had ranged from $376,000 for a 1,250-square-foot, one-bedroom residence to more than $3 million for one of four 4,700-square-foot penthouses. But starting today, those prices will increase an average of 5 percent. “We’ve only been marketing them for three months and only actively advertising them for the last 30 days, and we’re close to 40 percent reserved at this time,” said Art Carpenter, vice president of developer Maritz, Wolff & Co. Buyers are putting down a refundable $5,000 as an expression of interest. Construction on the 129-unit high-rise, to be built on the east parking lot of the Four Seasons Hotel, was originally scheduled to start late this year, but has been moved to March, Carpenter said.
— Austin American-Statesman, December 8, 2000
Between the deflation of the tech bubble and 9/11, the project went on hold in November 2001, and wasn’t revived until 2006 by developer Ardent Residential, which proposed a 32-story condo tower designed by acclaimed postmodern architect Michael Graves.
Though folks probably had a hard time believing it, this version of the San Jacinto Center’s long-lost second tower actually broke ground in 2008, delivered in 2010, and celebrated the sale of its final residence in 2013 — although you’re still free to drop a record-breaking $25 million on a unit, if you’re so inclined!