With so many tower projects in the works for downtown Austin, picking a favorite is a lot like picking a favorite child — you’ve probably got one, but it’s not polite to talk about in front of the other buildings. Still, the Avenue apartment tower planned at 721 Congress Avenue is high on my list, for a number of reasons.
It’s a good-looking tower, yeah, and the street-level design plays nice with its historic neighbors the Paramount and State Theatres — but perhaps more importantly, it’s the first residential project in downtown Austin to be built without any parking whatsoever. Though we’re not entirely sure when this project’s breaking ground, new and incredibly snazzy renderings have emerged within the last few weeks from its architects and developers at Nelsen Partners, so I figured now was a good time to catch up on Congress Avenue’s latest transformation.
Although parking’s not required by the city’s Central Business District zoning, eliminating it outright from this development is still a meaningful design choice, and a bit of a calculated risk if you think it through. Being the first building of this type in the city means you’re taking the chance on enough affluent urbanites being willing to commit to a car-free lifestyle to sustain your project, and that assumption, in turn, relies upon the integrity of our city’s various alternative transit networks — buses, ridesharing, dockless conveyances of questionable legality, and so on.
Of course, this building would definitely not be happening if that very concept hadn’t been focus-grouped and researched to death to ensure its viability — heck, Dan’s been living downtown without a car for 13 years now — and the data appears to suggest that the young, tech-employed population this project will undoubtedly target are only the tip of the spear when it comes to the millennial generation’s evolving habits of transit usage. In the end, the payoff of this risk is that once the Avenue is built and (hopefully) occupied, it’ll be far easier to build other residential towers just like it, without having to convince anyone of anything.
Perhaps an even more interesting feature of the building is its office space — reportedly 25,000 square feet of it. That’s not a huge area by any means, and could easily be occupied by a single tenant, but what does it take to run a parking-free office? Maybe Nelsen Partners themselves are looking for a new headquarters, and they’re ready to put their money where their mouth is on this no-car thing. I can hear the leasing agent for the apartments now — “I do it, and so can you!”
Before we move on, let’s run down some details. Despite a few bumps along the way, the building’s site plan has been approved by the city, and the demolition of the existing structure on the corner of Congress Avenue and Eighth Street also has a green light, even though we don’t know exactly when that’s going to kick off — the approved demo permit expires in December, so they’d better get moving! We do know that the tower’s got an estimated construction schedule of 16 months, meaning if work starts this summer, the Avenue could deliver as early as fall 2019.
The project itself in its approved form is 346 feet tall with 30 floors, offering 135 apartment units above the aforementioned 25,000 square feet of office space, along with a ground-floor restaurant. Its apartments, described in some coverage as “micro-units,” actually range from 420 to a fairly roomy 970 square feet and include one and two-bedroom floorplans. That doesn’t mean the building’s not small — facing Congress Avenue, it’s about 43 feet wide, which is only a couple of feet more than the length of a city bus.
One of the interesting details of the tower is its setback at the eighth floor, mandated both by a Capital View Corridor and the design rules of the Congress Avenue Combining District, which creates a pool deck overlooking Congress Avenue. The building’s website, which doesn’t appear to have been updated in a while, also mentions a “basement cocktail lounge,” which has hopefully survived into these current designs — after all, when you don’t have to drive, you can drink as much as you want! But maybe don’t.
The demolition of the structure currently at 721 Congress Avenue, occupied at the moment by an aptly-named temporary art gallery provided by the property’s owners, was originally slated for demolition in spring 2017, but plans appear to have changed — I mean, the building’s still standing. There’s actually a wooden model of the Avenue building in the window facing Congress Avenue, with a sign promoting the apartment project. If you go around the corner down Eighth Street a bit, you’ll see a low-key mockup behind glass of what appears to be a residential unit in the finished tower:
Cannot tell if this is an art installation or model unit for The Avenue. 8th & Congress, taken a couple weeks ago. pic.twitter.com/a1dq3vGHkE
— Jude Galligan (@downtown_austin) April 12, 2018
The folks at Nelsen Partners have remained unavailable for comment every time I’ve attempted to get in touch with them regarding this project — but considering how many times I’ve seen their name misspelled as “Nelson” in media coverage of their buildings, I can’t exactly blame them. Speaking as a guy who gets erroneously called “Ramblin” an average of 2.5 times per day, I feel y’all’s pain.
Anyway, I like this tower, so if you guys can tell me when you’re hoping to build it, I’ll add that information to this article. Thanks!