A plan to construct a 55-story tower containing multifamily residences behind historic storefronts on Congress Avenue would be the first new residential building on the so-called Main Street of Texas since the completion of the Austonian condos in 2010 — but the proposal faces scrutiny from the city’s Historic Landmark Commission due to this important downtown corridor’s many protections and design restrictions.
The plan, which is currently only linked to tight-lipped local real estate private equity firm Pennybacker Capital, would construct a tower addition atop historic storefronts from 308 to 318 Congress Avenue — the most prominent structure in this assembly is the W.B. Smith Building at 316 Congress Avenue, dating back to 1884 but perhaps best known as the home of the Vulcan Gas Company music venue in the late 1960s.
While the actual appearance of the new tower is unknown at the moment, documents submitted to the agenda of the Historic Landmark Commission’s November 2 meeting as part of the project’s application for a certificate of appropriateness offer a number of murky details. The presentation by local architecture firm Clayton Korte describes the various setbacks imposed on an infill structure here by city ordinances like the Congress Avenue Overlay District — along with influence from the presence of the historic Koppel building next door, which is not part of the tower plan but will prompt an additional setback on the north side of the project to prevent the new building from overpowering the old structure’s original character.
According to the presentation to the HLC, the project plans to preserve or rebuild all of the facades facing Congress Avenue, while removing the rear walls of the structures for the tower’s new footprint — you can see more details in the plan below:
If built to these preliminary designs, the structure would contain four retail spaces in the preserved storefronts at the ground floor, with six levels of below-ground parking and seven garage levels above the lobby — a total of 625 spaces, which is really an awful lot of parking considering the innate walkability of Congress Avenue. Above the garage, the tower would contain 450 residential units.
Although we’re usually the first folks in line to support smart infill on historic corridors like Congress Avenue, the presentation of the project seen here leaves a lot of details unclear, and the architects’ illustrations don’t make it particularly easy to visualize the effect of the building on its historic surroundings — and as you might imagine, the HLC’s Architectural Review Committee has deeper concerns than we do:
Implement a deeper setback. Do not demolish the rear or side portions of landmark structures. Restore or incorporate adjacent buildings. New construction must be subordinate to the landmark buildings on the block, including the adjacent Koppel building. Retain streetscape, setback and height, massing, and fenestration patterns.
— Architectural Review Committee Feedback, 316 Congress
The committee’s recommendation is to postpone this item to its upcoming December 14 meeting, asking the applicant to provide more information including detailed illustrations of the potential building along with the request for a deeper setback and increased restraint in the project’s expected demolition. It ain’t easy to build anything new on Congress Avenue, and we often find ourselves at odds with the HLC’s old-fashioned takes on this kind of growth when the alternative often seems to be allowing underutilized historic buildings to decay — but in this case, we also think the developers ought to show a bit more of their work before getting the green light.