Now that we’ve had a few days to digest the Austin American-Statesman’s breaking news story about the redevelopment of its own headquarters on the south shores of Lady Bird Lake, we thought it might be nice to think a little further about the potential wrapped up in this roughly 19-acre site at 305 South Congress Avenue. Even though the plan, as shown in the renderings seen here, is more of a framework for what might be rather than an exact description of what we’ll get, there’s still a lot going on worth noting.
Just for fun, let’s compare a new rendering of the project with a sketch from roughly the same angle included in the years-old South Central Waterfront Initiative Vision Plan, intended to show the redevelopment potential of this area:
Not bad, huh? Just try to keep in mind that nothing’s definitive at this point — the architects and developers are using words like “vision” and “holistic” a lot, so you know we’ll see some tweaks while hammering out the final design. Still, it doesn’t seem like jumping the gun for us to say what we’ve seen so far is pretty inspiring.
Spearheaded by well-known Austin developers Endeavor Real Estate Group and featuring design by renowned Chicago architecture outfit Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and San Franciso landscape architects CMG, the plan would create multiple towers at the property containing apartment, condo, hotel, office, and retail uses; along with about 12.5 acres of public outdoor space including a boardwalk for the area’s section of the Hike-and-Bike Trail, a potential pedestrian bridge across the lake, a spruced-up area for bat-watching at the Congress Avenue Bridge, and many other outdoor features landscape architects dream about. For now, they’re just calling it 305 South Congress.
The 305 project would require, among other things, hammering out a public-private partnership between the city and developer, along with modifying the site’s planned unit development agreement — not unlike the deal we made with Trammell Crow for the redevelopment of the Green Water Treatment Plant site. Still, no matter how long it takes, it’s nice to see this project deliver what will hopefully be a little shot in the arm for the frustratingly slow adoption of the city’s South Central Waterfront Initiative for the gradual transformation of the district.
Perhaps less sexy but still critical to the overall vision of the SCWI for this area are the plan’s street improvements, including punching Barton Springs Road through the east side of Congress Avenue — bringing the site back to the grid, as it were — and allowing for all sorts of improvements like shared streets, bike lanes, and human-scaled blocks. There’s parking, of course — 3,700 spaces, to be exact — but most is located below-grade, something we’re happy to see in a city increasingly dominated by new towers rising from majorly visible and generally kinda fugly parking podiums.
“Light and air” was the mantra for Douglas Voigt, a partner at SOM who spoke to Austin’s South Central Waterfront Advisory Board earlier this week as part of a courtesy briefing on the 305 project by the developer — in fact, he used this exact phrase about five or six times while describing its features. That light and that air are partially enabled by the underground parking, which allows each tower to stand alone and preserves many more sightlines throughout the development.
Per this slide from the presentation, the parking strategy for the project actually exceeds what the South Central Waterfront Initiative’s guidelines would call for, and clearly makes for a more iconic collection of towers — funny how parking podiums can harm the aesthetics of a building, ain’t it?
To be honest, the first takeaway from these renderings is “Wow, the towers are actually tall.” That height is a side effect of the buried parking component of the 305 development, which is a lot more expensive to build than above-ground garages. In order to make everything pencil out, Endeavor hopes to go a little taller with the towers here, which naturally increases their rate of return.
Unlike some South Austin homeowners, you’ll never hear us complaining about extra height — the tallest building included here, at 525 feet, is actually 10 feet taller than the Frost Bank Tower, which is really, really cool to see:
There’s a lot we could focus on here, but perhaps the most interesting detail of this project isn’t the buildings at all — it’s the new pedestrian bridge you’ll see in some of these images crossing Lady Bird Lake and connecting the site to the Waller Creek / Rainey Street District region on the waterway’s north bank.
The idea for a bridge here is something we originally saw from the folks at the Waller Creek Conservancy as part of its plan for the creek delta’s improvement, but the 305 vision makes it seem more like a sure thing, and Voigt’s presentation earlier this week touched on an incredibly fascinating additional possibility for that bridge — it might also contain a public transit component, courtesy of the Blue Line hypothesized in Capital Metro’s Project Connect.
Though Austin’s transit agency is reportedly weighing its options on whether the route of the Blue Line should cross the lake via bridge or tunnel, the slide above really makes you think — how cool would it be if we got one signature bridge in this area designed not just for pedestrians and bikes, but also with dedicated lanes for public transit? It appears this potential is already on the architects’ minds, with Voigt mentioning in his presentation the possibility of an actual Blue Line station located within the 305 site. The combined bridge idea is sort of included in the plan already — look at the dotted lines on the right side of the image below:
Even though we don’t really know exactly what Project Connect will do with this line — automated buses are supposedly being discussed, which is interesting to say the least — the connectivity we could create at this corner of the site, if we wanted to, might become one of its more transformative features.
To be honest, nearly any redevelopment of this considerable chunk of downtown-adjacent land would likely represent an improvement, at least in terms of its public utility and access. As much as we want our beloved local paper of record to continue its operations in perpetuity — something we didn’t think we had to worry about until a certain New York holding company began shedding many of its staffers in a seemingly ongoing slow-motion hatchet job — that doesn’t mean we don’t see the potential of the Statesman’s enormous nearly-downtown headquarters, built back when this land wasn’t quite as desirable and daily print newspapers were considerably more profitable.
The elephant in the room when it comes to this plan, a question nobody seems willing to answer for the moment no matter how politely we ask, is what’s going to happen to the Statesman offices once this project moves forward. It may not be great business, but wouldn’t it be nice if Endeavor carved out some office space for the paper within the 305 development? We’d hate to see those folks end up in Pflugerville.