The stretch of Congress Avenue north of the lake is fairly important, I’d say. You might cornily consider it the spine of the ever-changing book that is Austin — heck, all the numbered streets running across it receive prefixes of East or West in deference to its status as “The Main Street of Texas,” with thousands of downtown addresses defined by their positions relative to its latitude.
Of course, this idealistic vision doesn’t really hold up when you realize there are a bunch of vacant buildings, like, right there, facing Congress Avenue only a few blocks south from the Capitol. Naturally, there are some good reasons for why they’re sitting empty, and I know I’ve harped on this a lot — but it’s not very friendly-looking, is it?
That’s why this week’s Austin Monitor story regarding the dismantling and restoration of the facades at 907, 909, and 911 Congress Avenue was a very nice thing to read. If you can’t access the article, maybe it’s time to subscribe — it’s like five bucks, Ebeneezer — but here’s a quote anyway:
For over a decade, three properties at 907, 909 and 911 Congress Ave. have stood vacant as they awaited a plan to restore their original facades. In September of 2006, two of the properties were approved for dismantling, but now the owner, Dalton Wallace, has approached the Historic Landmark Commission to ask that all three be approved for deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction.
At their June 25 meeting, Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky presented the commissioners with very specific instructions about how to handle this request. “The best proposal here is to deconstruct these facades and then reconstruct them after the (high-rise) behind them is completed,” he said. “The question before the commission tonight is whether you all believe this is appropriate treatment for these buildings.”
Although the commission was concerned that this request was putting the cart before the horse, it unanimously approved the dismantling and storage of these three historic facades while the planned high-rise project behind the facades is constructed.
— Austin Monitor, Wednesday, July 11, 2018
You see how casually they drop the line about a tower getting built on top of this site? I live for that stuff. Anyway, as seen in the quote, plans for this location date back to at least 2006, which is pretty wild — the owners of the properties have been working on getting them renovated and redeveloped for more than a decade, meaning these three ridiculously well-situated, Congress Avenue-facing buildings have sat vacant for at least that long.
If you skimmed the KUT article I linked earlier, you’ll know there are a lot of factors at work here — for one thing, all the 907-911 Congress Avenue properties are historic in some way, with the 911 address specifically belonging to the Congress Avenue Historic District due to its construction date way back in 1890. That means any redevelopment has to pass muster with the city’s Historic Landmark Commission, and getting the facades of these buildings restored is a good place to start.
This actually almost happened for two of the three buildings back in 2006, when the 907 and 909 addresses were approved by the commission for restoration as part of a four-story development that would replicate the look of the two buildings’ existing facades for two extra floors, resulting in a mixed-use structure with retail on the ground floor, an office level above that, then two floors of residential on top divided up into 10 units — plus two underground parking levels, natch:
Even though the commission approved of the project, it still wasn’t super keen on the idea of linking the two stories of new facade to the two existing historic floors, no matter how hard the addition tried to ape the old building’s style. Instead, it gently recommended a greater setback for the top two floors, to better differentiate the safe and old design from the new and potentially scary one.
Documents for this version of the project show up until spring 2010, but in the summer of that year, the Austin Business Journal dropped a story outlining something completely different: a 16-story office tower that would rise from not just two, but all three of the vacant historic properties at 907-911 Congress Avenue. Dwelling on the transactional side of real estate development for more than a few seconds at a time puts me into a coma, but there’s a nugget of info in that story that suggests behind-the-scenes drama stalling the development of these properties:
Real estate sources said the site has not been developed in the past because of squabbles between different owners. While [property owner Dalton] Wallace owns all three partials [sic?], the 909 Congress building deed date is March 29, according to county records, which suggests he recently bought out his neighbor to end any disputes.
— Austin Business Journal, June 28, 2010
Bunch of owners squabbling, sure. Point is, the larger tower we’re reading about here in 2010 might be similar to what the commission’s talking about for the site in the present day. Property owner Dalton Wallace states in the Monitor article that the building isn’t fully designed yet, so we technically have no clue what the final product will look like. Still, the developers have presented documents related to the facade restoration of these properties to the Historic Landmark Commission several times between 2010 and now, and each time, they’ve included renderings of a tower at this site prepared by Dallas firm HKS Architects:
Even though this image dates back to at least 2010, due to this site’s unique position in one of Austin’s most central and historic districts, there are so many constraints on the actual geometry of what you can build here that almost any tower of this size you designed to fit the location would look roughly the same — not necessarily in color or materials, but in basic shape. The second rendering of the hypothetical structure spells out these constraints in more detail:
I’m reading the tea leaves a little, but let’s see if we can’t make sense of some of the factors at play here:
• Capitol Dominance Overlay: Like the Capitol View Corridor’s burlier cousin, the Capitol Dominance Overlay is an imaginary plane extending out in all directions for a quarter-mile around the Capitol dome.
Buildings within the overlay district are not permitted to rise higher than the level of the overlay’s plane above their site, which changes based on a given location’s distance from the Capitol. You can figure out the exact math yourself with this, if you really want to:
Obviously, the point of the overlay is to ensure that no other buildings challenge the Capitol’s dominance of the view in this area of downtown, a task accomplished in more remote regions by the various Capitol View Corridors beaming out in all directions through downtown. This additional illustration of the hypothetical office building at the 907-911 Congress Avenue site shows the path of the overlay limiting the tower’s height, and also demonstrates how the height of the overlay itself slowly rises as its distance from the Capitol increases:
• Capitol View Corridor: Dan does a much better job at this than me, so I’ll send you his way if you’d like to learn more about our old friend the CVC — in short, they’ve been around since 1983 after projects like Westgate Tower rose a little tall for some people’s taste, and replaced more permissive zoning ordinances that allowed projects to exceed the 200-foot height limit around the Capitol by building setbacks. The modern CVC running straight down Congress Avenue preserves an element of these older regulations, however — to ensure everyone can see the Capitol from down the street, it requires buildings fronting the avenue to build with a setback from the street once they pass a certain height.
• Congress Avenue Combining District: This is where it gets tricky. These properties are within the Congress Avenue Combining District which mandates certain design rules on buildings in order to keep the Capitol dome as visible as possible in the area, namely in the form of setbacks. After a building fronting Congress Avenue rises to 90 feet in height, it must then be set back from the street 60 feet before it can get any taller — that’s where the yellow line cutting through the building in the rendering up there comes from.
But of course, you can see in the rendering that the building doesn’t obey those rules. It’s possible the developer was originally planning on using the city’s CURE zoning tool to reduce that setback and maximize available space, something that’s been done before — but that zoning has been effectively eliminated since then in favor of the Downtown Density Bonus Program, and I must confess I’m not entirely sure what can be accomplished here right now with the city’s code. The geometry of the building seen in the rendering above might simply be a best-case scenario, with the more likely option including that 60-foot setback.
Either way, we’ve got even more compelling evidence that an office tower similar to what’s seen in these renderings and discussed in the 2010 ABJ article is still planned for this site. These documents from HKS Architects included in the Historic Landmark Commission’s backup files for the 907-911 Congress Avenue facade renovation item discuss a 16-floor office tower at the site with a six-level parking garage component, and it only dates back a month or two:
The parking and office levels seem to line up pretty darned well with what we saw in the older renderings above, don’t they? I’m not saying anything’s definite at this point, but doesn’t that sound a little better than idle speculation to you? Either way, if we’re lucky, we’ll see a building go up at this site sooner rather than later — I honestly don’t care what it looks like as long as it isn’t literally abandoned.