Earlier this year, we learned that local developers Cielo Property Group had plans for two tower projects set to transform a full block in downtown Austin, with the first phase raising a 50-story office tower at the corner of Fourth and Brazos Streets. Previous tower plans for this site, currently occupied by event venue Brazos Hall and a small office building, were interesting enough — but Cielo has completely thrown those out and imagined something better with an all-star team from global design studio Perkins & Will, acclaimed Austin firm Michael Hsu Office of Architecture, and the local landscape architects at Ten Eyck. For now, the Cielo project is still known simply by the unremarkable name of Fourth & Brazos, but we promise you’ll remember once you get a good look at this building.
The 705-foot project, set to be presented to the city’s Design Commission earlier this week for a density bonus vote but postponed due to a lack of quorum, contains 765,000 square feet of office space alongside a whopping 48,000 square feet of ground-level retail split between at least four restaurant spaces, two of which rise to a second mezzanine level overlooking the street as seen in close-up renderings.
Along with significant pedestrian improvements on its southern frontage, the building is split at its base by a pedestrian paseo running from East Fourth Street north to the alley between the southern and northern half of the block — remember, Cielo also plans to develop a tower on the north side of this block at a later date, meaning this paseo will either continue through the second building or at least provide unique internal pedestrian access to both sides of the block.
The cancellation of this week’s Design Commission meeting means we don’t have quite as much information on the project as usual, since discussion of these items generally includes an in-depth presentation by representatives of its designers, but the existing documents already make a good case for this building.
The project is designed to incorporate Great Streets Standards along all public street frontages and overhangs or canopies at building entries. The building overhang proposed along a portion of Brazos Street and San Jacinto Boulevard and all of E. 4th Street will provide overhead protection at the pedestrian level . . . The ground level is re-shaped and carved to provide a microclimate that is planted and buffered with the plaza and paseo. It is in itself the covered walkway at its highest level, a fully considered pedestrian experience.
— Fourth & Brazos DDBP Application
The curved edges of its exterior — which we love in smaller projects and are excited to see scaled up to a full-sized tower — create a design entirely different to the observer than a right-angled “box” of equal mass, providing a dynamic effect at both skyline and street. There seems to be a significant cosmetic use of stone and mass timber at the ground level, with additional warm elements — possibly wood, but certainly organic in appearance — cladding the parking structure along with each floorplate of its tower section, which also features north-facing balconies with timber-lined soffits.
Though there’s an inspiring amount of competition in the works around downtown at the moment, the Fourth & Brazos tower could set a new standard for pedestrian-centered streetscape improvement, breaking up the ground-level mass of the building with its public paseo and considerate of future developments including the Project Connect Blue Line down East Fourth Street. Its large retail presence is a welcome addition to the area, particularly when other projects of its scale offer little or none — though we won’t know for sure until the next meeting, we see no possible argument against the project’s approval for a density bonus based on its guidelines.
Speaking of the Downtown Density Bonus Program, we’d be negligent not to mention that same program could be easily tweaked to disincentivize this tower’s worst feature — a 17-level parking garage accessed at ground level from curb cuts facing Brazos and San Jacinto Streets, artfully clad but impossible to ignore against the far more elegant tower above and pedestrian-loving lobby below. We’re not so high on our own urbanist supply that we expect an office tower to fully eliminate parking for its workers, but if the DDBP counted above-ground garages against a project’s bonus floor-to-area ratio while exempting underground parking, the added development expense of digging down might suddenly become worthwhile. Hint, hint.