Since its first appearance on the scene in 2017, we’ve certainly done our part covering developer Trammell Crow Company’s plans for Block 71, a 36-story office tower at 200 West Sixth Street in downtown Austin. Great job, us!
But there’s a reason (no, they’re not paying us) that we’ve covered this project so thoroughly over the years. More than possibly any other development in the city, Block 71 sums up the manner in which we’d prefer Austin to grow — adding height and much-needed office space to the downtown core in the form of a strikingly-designed tower, while simultaneously accommodating the existing historic former post office building on the same block and actually improving that structure’s utility to the public by turning it into a retail “food hall” space.
Between the adaptive reuse of Claudia Taylor Johnson Hall, the removal of an above-ground parking garage in favor of a new outdoor plaza space on the northwest corner of the block, and the retail space planned on the ground floor of the office tower itself, the Block 71 project — if they pull it off well — could be the most radical activation of a downtown block we’ve seen in quite a while.
Anyway, this development is decidedly underway, with the tower’s big pit quickly filling with its underground parking structure. A recent marketing brochure from Trammell Crow Company, CBRE, and investment firm Principal Financial Group, contains some new renderings of the Block 71 tower — views from afar, inside, and at the street level, along with our first look at what the food hall in the renovated mail room of Claudia Taylor Johnson Hall might look like. Here are a few selections from the document — click each image for a larger view:
Here’s a critique so you know we aren’t just shilling for this thing — see that slide up there that says “private urban plaza?” Although “private common area” is a valid measurement term used in the commercial real estate industry to describe space exclusively shared by a building’s tenants, it doesn’t really apply here — calling the plaza “private,” whether intentionally or otherwise, delivers the subtle implication that this space is not a public amenity.
Using that specific language in a marketing document like this is probably meant to reassure investors that the plaza space will not become a magnet for the city’s homeless population or other individuals deemed undesirable by potential tenants — like the privately-owned public space at Fareground, it will likely have posted rules, hours, and security to enforce both — but it’s still an unfortunate choice of words that undermines (or even contradicts) the description of the building submitted for consideration to the Austin Design Commission in 2017.
As part of our Downtown Density Bonus Program, the building must meet certain gatekeeper requirements to build to its desired size, one of which is adherence to the city’s Urban Design Guidelines. Here’s what the architects at Page had to say about the project’s relationship to the public realm back then — the emphasis is mine:
The proposed development participates in the Great Streets program, and in doing so provides street trees, benches, and sidewalk pavers which all provide for a pedestrian scaled environment. At the street wall, the office tower scales down its façade treatment and begins to employ more varied materials and a finer grained composition of elements. The richly detailed historic post office retains its scale and presence, and the office tower defers to it via large recess along 6th street that responds to the existing structure both in plan and elevation. Perhaps most important to providing humane character is the plaza, which will add sorely needed green space for leisure and activities to downtown Austin.— Block 71 Project Review Application, Page, November 2017
No specific piece of what is traditionally considered civic art is currently planned for the project, but that’s due largely to the fact that the art program has yet to be developed. Certainly the opportunities for such exist and will be discussed. However, it could be claimed that the preservation, rehabilitation, and exposure of the historic post office building alongside the inclusion of the adjacent landscaped plaza will act in much the same beneficial ways as civic art does by providing notable landmarks in which to understand and navigate the city, as well as providing places that are inherently focused on public participation.
Very few sites in downtown Austin are offered the opportunity to integrate with a historic building, especially of the quality and scale of the historic post office. Even fewer are able to allocate area to providing open space that is publicly accessible. This development proposes to do both, creating an entirely unique space that likely cannot be reproduced elsewhere in the city.
Through the provision of the plaza and the and numerous terraces throughout the office tower, this development has focused a great deal on providing meaningful outdoor spaces that can be utilized by both the office tenants and the public.
It may sound like nitpicking, because it definitely is — but words matter, and the ones the developers have chosen here are unfriendly and ill-fitted for a project of this scope and design. Do better!
Anyway, now that I’ve delivered my spicy take of the day, it’s time to close on a positive note — this rendering from the brochure of Block 71 against the skyline is one of the better views of the tower we’ve seen in context with the rest of the city, and man, isn’t it a beauty:
The document indicates that the tower is scheduled to reach “substantial completion” by April 2021, with tenant occupancy expected to begin by July 2021. To be honest, we’re just excited to see it get past the hole in the ground.