Block 185 is an all-star tower. This 35-floor office building by national developer Trammell Crow Company, which broke ground last month in downtown Austin, is already leased in full by tech juggernaut Google, and features a striking sail-like design courtesy of “starchitecture” outfit Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects.
For such a stacked project, it’s kind of surprising how few renderings we’ve seen of the tower so far — although I guess it makes sense that you wouldn’t need to worry all that much about marketing when you’ve already landed Google as a tenant. Still, we’ve impatiently awaited a better view of the structure for ages, and thanks to a presentation by its architects to the city’s Design Commission last night, the time is now for our deepest look yet at this iconic addition to Austin’s burgeoning skyline.
There’s a lot to get through, so let’s start with the wide shots:
If you’re even a casual architecture fan, this is already enough to have you mopping your brow — César Pelli, founder of Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, is behind some of the world’s most respected skyscrapers, including the instantly-recognizable twin Petronas Towers in Malaysia. Austin’s own STG Design and Campbell Landscape Architecture are also working on the project.
“We view this building as being a gateway to downtown.”
— Bill Butler, Principal, Pelli Clarke Pelli
Austin’s received more than its fair share of compelling towers in the last few years — mostly office buildings, although the Independent condos certainly raised the bar for residential projects — but this might be the single most impressive skyscraper design we’ve seen in the city since the debut of the Frost Bank Tower.
Though the pyramidal shape of the 589-foot building just looks cool to the casual observer, it’s also an elegant solution to a pair of challenging development constraints on the property — the look is mandated, at least to some extent, by the two angled setback requirements imposed on the property due to its proximity to Shoal Creek to the west and Lady Bird Lake to the south across Cesar Chavez Street.
On the tower’s western elevation, this setback is expressed by a curved, sail-shaped glass wall, while the southern elevation accommodates the requirement with a series of terraces that recede as the building rises — the paths of both setbacks and the outline of the structure carefully following them are visible in the illustration above, with additional detail on display in the image below:
The architects illustrated the location’s unique zoning limitations during their presentation to the commission with an image highlighting the envelope, seen here in red, that a building on this site can occupy:
Here are some of the closer-up views shown off at yesterday’s meeting, which also include a better look at the building’s landscape design and ground-floor interaction with surrounding streets, plus its engagement with the adjacent Shoal Creek:
Remember, this tower’s site is bound by Cesar Chavez Street to the south, Nueces Street to the east, Second Street to the north, and Shoal Creek to the west. The plot represents the final piece of redevelopment for Austin’s former Thomas C. Green Water Treatment Plant, and perhaps the trickiest of the bunch to build on, due to a variety of constraints — there’s probably a reason Block 185 is the last major project to break ground in this new district.
Along with accommodating Shoal Creek itself, its location means the new building must play nice with the plaza and trail space at the Central Library site on the opposite bank, along with the district’s eye-catching Butterfly Bridge. Also found nearby are the Austin Proper and Third + Shoal developments, with the Independent only a bit further away. It’s easy to forget what this area looked like only a decade ago!
To improve the building’s ground-floor engagement with Shoal Creek, the northwest corner includes a retail space with an outdoor plaza overlooking the creekbed — likely to be occupied by a restaurant. This side also enables connectivity between Cesar Chavez and Second Streets for cyclists and pedestrians:
The tower’s northeast corner will also include ground-floor retail space facing the corner of Second and Nueces Streets — pretty much inevitably another restaurant, since it would be a real bummer to waste that patio:
Greenwater Block 185 is the final phase of the Greenwater Redevelopment project and will house a 35 story office building (including 10 levels of above grade parking), 6 levels of below ground parking, and ground floor restaurant/retail. We broke ground on the project in February 2019 to start the diaphragm wall which will take 3 months to complete before excavation can start on the site.
— Block 185 Design Commission Presentation Documents, March 25
The building includes 793,883 total rentable square feet of office space, all of which is apparently going to be occupied by Google. Here’s how the floors are laid out, along with some information about its above and below-grade parking:
The developers were not at last night’s meeting to seek a density bonus recommendation from the Design Commission — this project’s under the jurisdiction of the master development agreement established between Trammell Crow and the city for the redevelopment of the former water treatment plant, meaning the Downtown Density Bonus Program’s gatekeeper requirements don’t apply here. Instead, their presentation was simply a “courtesy briefing” that allowed commissioners to provide comments on the project.
Though the reception was definitely positive, there were a few critiques, mostly related to the tower’s ground-level frontages along Shoal Creek and Cesar Chavez Street. Since the building doesn’t really have a “back of house” — it faces active streets on three sides and a protected creek on the fourth, with nary an alley in sight — there’s nowhere ideal to place its transformer vaults, which in the current configuration face Cesar Chavez Street and give the structure’s ground level on its southern-facing side an appearance that commissioners didn’t find particularly friendly or well-suited for the pedestrian environment.
The commission raised the “not unheard-of” possibility that Austin Energy might allow the developer to bury these vaults underground, a design previously permitted for the JW Marriott tower. This same question came up during the density bonus application for Block 71, so maybe it’s time to figure it out for good?
You can see the effect of the transformer vaults in the image above, which looks at the southeast corner of the building from Cesar Chavez and Nueces Streets — there’s an art installation space facing Cesar Chavez Street to offset the monolithic effect of the vaults, but it would be nice if the architects didn’t have to design around them at all.
The other concern involved the ground-level design of the tower facing Shoal Creek, which commissioners found a little cramped-looking for pedestrian and bicycle traffic and not landscaped densely enough to either provide shade or match the lush appearance of the Central Library’s outdoor space just across the creek. The site’s preserved heritage live oak tree, which was moved by the city to the bank of the creek from the edge of Cesar Chavez Street back in 2017, does look a little lonely — you can see it standing tall in the center of the image below:
It’s unclear whether these comments will result in alterations to the project’s design, but they certainly don’t seem like insurmountable problems — we’ll be excited to follow the progress of this tower either way. Per the presentation, Block 185 is currently scheduled to set sail by early May 2022.