If we’re being precise, Block 71 is the City of Austin’s assigned number for a 1.75-acre downtown block owned by the University of Texas and bordered by West Seventh, Colorado, West Sixth and Lavaca Streets. But more importantly, it’s also the presumed name of developer Trammell Crow Company’s planned mixed-use complex, set to transform the site with a 36-story office tower, retail, restaurants, an outdoor plaza, and an adaptive reuse project restoring a historic former post office on the southwestern corner of the site, Claudia Taylor Johnson Hall.
There’s another UT office tower presently on the site, but we don’t like to talk about that — at the end of the day, all that’s sticking around on this block is the historic post office building and some heritage trees, with the rest of the development shaping the surrounding space.
Larry Speck, principal at the development’s architecture firm of record Page — also known as the designers of 70 Rainey — delivered a presentation on Block 71 to the city’s Design Commission at a meeting earlier this week. The minds behind the block were hoping for a vote declaring the project in substantial compliance with Austin’s urban design guidelines, in order to meet the requirements of the Downtown Density Bonus Program and receive its necessary FAR increase. Long story short, that means we got a deeper look at plans for this building than ever before, and I think you’re going to like them.
Welcome to Block 71. The particularly attractive view above, showing the love-it-or-hate-it shape of the project’s office tower component, is perhaps even more fascinating when pulled back further — giving us the context necessary to remember that this tower is a few floors taller than its neighbors, the Frost Bank Tower and One American Center:
But what really matters to those of us who spend the majority of our time on the ground is how the building and its block connect with the street-level environment. We’ve previously gone into detail on the project’s plans for restoring the historic post office building next door and connecting it to its office tower, but Speck’s presentation to the Design Commission dug a little deeper.
Speck emphasized to the commission his firm’s commitment to showcasing, rather than overpowering, the grace and classical beauty of Claudia Taylor Johnson Hall. The glass street-level design of the office tower’s southern elevation is intended to maximize views of the historic post office from all possible angles, with a large setback — Speck calls it a “porch” — that doesn’t obscure the original building. The two structures are connected through the post office’s former loading dock on its eastern elevation, leading into the office tower’s large open lobby.
In an effort to elevate this project beyond simple offices into the realm of public space, Page’s design for the block makes approximately 84 percent of its ground-level area accessible to pedestrians — that’s between the office tower, the historic hall, and the outdoor plaza. In order to further enhance the site’s pedestrian environment, these plans reduce the number of curb cuts on the block from six to three.
The office tower also includes two rooftop terraces. I’m always happy to see new buildings utilizing available spaces like this — there are far too many unused rooftops in this city. Of course, these terraces likely aren’t going to be accessible to the general public. Still, Page included a rendering to tease us.
We’ve spent all this time running down renderings of the office tower — what’s going on in the other parts of the block? I’m pleased to report that Speck agrees with me regarding the attractiveness of the large factory-style back window of Claudia Taylor Johnson Hall, and how unjust it is to hide it with a parking garage. It appears that plans for the hall and its adjacent plaza space will finally right this wrong.
The outdoor plaza, which replaces the block’s parking garage, is landscaped with native plants and a water feature that uses the condensation from the office tower’s air conditioning system. It follows the natural slope of the land towards the river, creating an amphitheater space with grassy seating and a stage against the window of the restored hall. Speck says the plaza will host live music, food trucks, and other event programming.
On the other side of the hall’s big window lies what used to be the former post office’s mail sorting room. When UT occupied the building, this vaulted space was split into two floors for offices. Page’s plans for the building will bring this room back to the original design seen in the photo below, restoring the double-height trussed ceiling.
Perhaps the most important detail Speck revealed regarding Claudia Taylor Johnson Hall’s restoration is what’s planned for this room: if all goes well, the space will become Austin’s next food hall, with “kiosk” versions of iconic local restaurants arranged around the edges of the room — similar to the pint-sized outposts of eateries like the Salt Lick BBQ and Second Bar & Kitchen you’ll find at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. I’m sure the design also shares some similarities with upcoming food paradise Fareground — the outdoor plaza certainly looks similar, though I think it uses real grass.
After all that exposition, the Design Commission had a few concerns about the office tower’s eastern elevation facing Colorado Street. Due to restrictive (and seemingly arbitrary) Austin Energy regulations, the building’s transformer vault can’t be buried, so the building must hide this component behind a wall.
This, combined with the need for a loading dock on this side of the tower, means the wall is more than a little bland at street level. Speck explained that Page plans to install an “Art Wall” in this area, integrating local limestone and some kind of glass art that will liven up this side of the building with some sparkles. It’s good enough for me, and it was apparently good enough for the commission — the project was unanimously ruled in substantial compliance with the city’s urban design guidelines by all seven commissioners present.
Oh yeah, just one more thing. I have it on pretty good authority that the job search gurus at Indeed have already signed a lease to the tune of 300,000 square feet in the Block 71 office tower. Considering the whole building’s reported square footage is 665,000, that could make them the tower’s anchor tenant. Indeed, as you might imagine, vigorously declined to comment on the matter. Sorry I freaked you guys out.