It seems kind of bold to pursue the development of a hotel during a pandemic of unspecified length and impact, but as we’ve seen in recent weeks, plenty of projects in Austin are still chugging along. Not least of these is the oddball 159-room hotel plan by Trend Hospitality LP and developer William Franks for 1415 Lavaca Street, which would raise a 12-story structure above the historic Bartholomew-Robinson Building at the southeast corner of West 15th and Lavaca Streets for a location of “lifestyle hotel” brand Motto by Hilton — preserving the 1880s exterior walls of the original building, but repurposing the interior as a sort of podium for the new structure, a design not unlike the concept for a tower above downtown’s Royal Arch Masonic Lodge.
The historic nature of the original building places any plan for its redevelopment in the crosshairs of Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission, and the first iteration of the project was not a hit with its members at its initial appearance back in February — the new tower, commissioners said, overpowered the old structure, casting shadows on its charming rooftop cupolas and looming over its parapets to the point that they believed it diminished the historic elements of the property. And really, that criticism is pretty fair in this case — the original design for the tower by Houston-based firm MCS Architects wasn’t particularly noteworthy, its pitched roof reminiscent of a midrange hotel by the highway more than any significant downtown project.
But that design changed for the better when its developers appeared before the commission for the second time back in June — the new design features a more minimal and contemporary flat roof, a larger separation between the old and new buildings achieved by raising the tower portion higher and pulling its massing back from the parapets of the historic first floor, and a main entrance to the hotel that utilizes the original structure’s entrance at the corner of 15th and Lavaca Streets, rather than cutting a new one out of the wall facing Lavaca Street.
Even so, the commissioners had milder but significant criticisms of the second design, claiming the overhanging tower portion still cast too significant a shadow on the twin cupolas of the historic building facing 15th Street. The developers will return for a third time with a further-tweaked design to address these concerns a week from today on July 17, but we’ve got a copy of their presentation right now, so why wait?
The new design, seen for the first time in 3D renderings rather than drawings, shows us a structure not so different from the previous version — the major difference we can see is an increased distance between the second and third floors, which increases the distance between the historic podium and the new tower to 24 feet, up from an estimated 17 feet in the old version. This creates eight full feet of distance between the new tower portion and those twin cupolas facing 15th Street, a space the developers hope will be enough to win over commissioners concerned about the integrity of the historic structure. Here’s a comparison of the three designs for the project:
Though the third version of the design is still fairly minimal in its ornamentation — some people like this, some people don’t — it’s a vast improvement from the original plan’s appearance. We’re almost always avid supporters of adaptive reuse and allergic to the general notion of a new building somehow “overpowering” an old one, but in this case the original structure didn’t seem enhanced by the hotel portion until round three, where the added distance and glass of the terrace level above the first floor actually manages to showcase the character of the historic structure.
It’s also worth noting that the Bartholomew-Robinson Building is currently in extremely bad condition, so despite the modernization this project might actually clean up its exterior to a degree that we might not receive from another tenant here — but in the time of coronavirus, it feels like every project that hasn’t already broken ground has a big question mark hanging over it anyway. Still, we’re interested to see what the commission has to say about this building’s new design next week.