I’ll start by staking out a risky position for a blog like this: Downtown Austin is a pretty good place. Compared to, say, the moribund central business districts of Dallas or Houston, Austin’s original 179 blocks are, for the most part, a thriving patch of round-the-clock city life.
Well, for the most part. But once you get above 11th Street, things start to fall apart, and by the time you arrive at the state office buildings north of the Capitol and 15th Street, the house of cards has collapsed entirely. The space teems with thousands of government workers — and their cars — for roughly eight hours of the weekday, but after all the pencils have been pushed and the clocks have been punched, the area instantly transforms into a ghost town. If you ever wanted to prepare for life after the neutron bomb, go dig this corner of downtown any time after 6 p.m.
Of course, as has been written here and elsewhere, the state has big plans to spruce this joint up. The Texas Capitol Complex Master Plan, formally adopted in 2016, officially encompasses the 40 blocks bound by MLK Jr. Boulevard and Trinity, 10th, and Lavaca Streets — but its most radical changes are all targeted for the brutalist wasteland north of the Capitol building itself.
Per state law, the plan must be updated every two years, which means 2018 will feature a new iteration of the vast redesign. To that end, Peter Maass, deputy executive director of the Texas Facilities Commission, brought fresh renderings and a few new details to the Jan. 17 meeting of the Downtown Commission at City Hall.
The current plan is still broken up into three phases, the first of which will deliver two new towers, and most of the new Texas Mall — the official name tag for a long outdoor plaza that will replace North Congress Avenue — along with a handful of amenities and a boatload of parking.
The larger of the two office buildings, the one that will rise over the current parking lot across Congress Avenue from the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, will be named after President George H. W. Bush, Maass told the commission. The second building, at 1601 Congress Avenue, is simply known only by its address for now.
Both buildings will combine for more than one million square feet of office space that will be populated through the consolidation of state workers located at existing smaller facilities across the city. Crews will burrow beneath both buildings to construct five levels of underground parking featuring a staggering 4,400 new spaces. That’s right, gang — the first phase of this one project alone will increase downtown’s total parking capacity by more than 6 percent.
It’s existentially difficult for me to say anything good about that, especially given that the Capitol Complex is one of the most transit-rich areas in the state, but my New Year’s resolution was to be nice at least once, so here goes: at least it’s all mostly underground parking, and at least Maass’ team is subscribing to one pretty decent concept of progressive urban planning.
Per Maass, there will be no direct access to any of the surrounding buildings via the garage. When workers or visitors park their cars, they will all have to emerge onto the Texas Mall via what he dubbed “portals,” which sorta look like a large subway entrances. You can see them there in the renderings above and below — they’re those glass boxes.
As Maass told the commission: “This was was done on purpose so that it would activate the space, so that the thousands of employees that work and park here are going to come out and hopefully have chance encounters, hopefully strike up conversations, perhaps go to the coffee shop that’s there…and just have interactions.”
If that sounds more like Jane Jacobs than your average state employee, Maass later admitted to me that he had, of late, “drank the kool-aid and became a new urbanist.”
And yes, the plans do call for a coffee shop, an amphitheater, room for food trucks, and even a restaurant on the first floor of the 1601 Congress Avenue building. The rendering below optimistically shows dozens of people enjoying the new spaces. Just in a single illustration, we’ve got couples strolling, families picnicking, kids riding bikes — despite earlier reports, Maass told me the updated version of this plan won’t require the Texas Mall to be a dismount zone — and even one little girl flying a kite.
In fact, calling that an optimistic vision isn’t quite doing it justice. Since I’ve already fulfilled my New Year’s resolution, I’ll just be honest — it’s probably pretty dang delusional. Even though the Texas Mall will be equipped to host special events like the Texas Book Festival, and might prove a heckuva place to tailgate at the handful of UT home games, the space is still overwhelmingly dedicated to office workers, which means that for most of the day, all of the weekend, and most of the year, it will remain a dead zone, albeit a much more attractive one.
My especially dour prediction — which, on the bright side, often proves compulsively incorrect — is that this site will end up as a Wooldridge Square writ large.
To his credit, Maass is aware of this possibility, and said that he hopes the Bullock Museum will come up with some innovative ways to program events for the mall. He also joked about putting Franklin Barbecue in the development’s lone restaurant space.
Of course, the very heavy gorilla in the room — which, oddly enough, no one at the commission meeting asked about — is housing. Why can’t this plan bring a residential component back to what used to be a thriving neighborhood, at least before state bulldozers went on a postwar urban renewal spree?
Obviously, that’s a big lift for a state agency in blood-red Texas, but the thought, Maass told me, did cross the planning teams’ collective mind. But in the end, he said, it just wasn’t part of the Facilities Commission’s mandate, so the opportunity was passed over. However, he allowed that the dream isn’t entirely out of reach, given the plan’s mandatory biannual updates. It just might require some political leadership.
“We would have to have somebody in the legislature who is a visionary and who would be able to carry that torch and withstand some of the arrows that would come their way,” Maass told me.