After celebrating its official topping out earlier this summer and dismantling its crane late last month, we’re finally able to get a good look at the 31-floor hotel tower set to open early next year but already standing tall at the corner of Eighth Street and Congress Avenue, formally known as the Hyatt Centric Congress Avenue Austin but apparently also calling itself the Avenue — we think it’s safe to say the look is good.
Built by a development team including the Denver-based firm McWhinney and local architects Nelsen Partners alongside Hyatt Hotels, this 246-room project at 721 Congress Avenue owes many basic elements of its form to the site’s numerous constraints, making its pleasing appearance a remarkable achievement — the building sits atop a frightfully narrow tract, located on downtown’s most regulated corridor, with an 86-year-old historic neighbor actually sharing its southern wall. Despite this jumble of visible and unseen barriers, none of the design choices on display in the finished product convey a sense of compromise to the casual observer.
For instance, if you weren’t aware of this district’s regulations requiring the tower to recede from Congress Avenue at its eighth level, which in this case creates an amenity deck overlooking the street, you might think the choice to provide such a bustling view of the city below was completely voluntary. The glass facade rising several floors at the ground level is pulled back from the street to avoid overwhelming the State Theatre next door, providing a neutral frame for the historic structure in a manner we think once completed will arguably enhance the 1935 building’s iconic neon sign and art deco frontage by way of contrast against the dark glass — not to mention that the rest of the tower’s exterior matches the whitewashed shade of the theatre’s facade.
These are subtle features on a subtle building, but in a city where good architecture often feels locked in a standoff against shoe-like parking podiums and odd angles chiseled from glass by the all-seeing stare of Capitol View Corridors, the Hyatt’s somewhat understated elegance stands strong with additions like Indeed Tower and Block 185 as the most striking new designs gracing downtown in recent memory — and unlike the massive footprints and parking components of the other two towers, the Avenue achieves its slender look by eliminating parking altogether, since providing a significant garage on such a small site would make building the tower in its current state extremely difficult if not impossible.
The fact that the building brings such beauty to its small tract largely by casting aside its parking actually makes the finished product disappointing, in a way — architecturally it’s a clear triumph, but for those of us who recall the older version of the project, this alluring structure also represents a bittersweet missed opportunity. Announced in 2016, the Avenue was originally planned as downtown’s first car-free apartment tower, with 135 units in a package nearly identical to what’s there now.
Though the building’s designers and developers at Nelsen Partners haven’t gone on record about why the project eventually shifted its focus to a hotel use, we’ve heard from enough people involved to know that at least one major reason the original version of the Avenue fell through was the reluctance of investors or lenders to support an apartment tower designed without parking. Such an aversion to the perceived risk of the building struggling to find enough tenants who either didn’t own cars or didn’t need parking seems a little quaint in 2021, with the pandemic nudging many large employers towards remote work and current trends suggesting younger generations are increasingly likely to avoid car ownership.
In its original iteration, alongside a striking design the Avenue felt like a huge symbolic achievement for the ideals of urban living, and we hoped its success would motivate other parking-free residential developments around Austin. In hotel form, the tower is simply less powerful of a metaphor for the future of downtown we’d like to see, but that doesn’t take away from its own visible merits. As we’ve mentioned recently, there’s a lot of social value in a building that just plain looks good, and truthfully we’re happy the Avenue was built in any form — for now, we’ll have to get our carless apartment kicks from smaller projects. Anyway, you can bet your bottom dollar the corner of Eighth and Congress will stop us in our tracks for a long time. Just look at it!