A five-story office project in a fast-growing northwestern district of downtown Austin has recently entered the early stages of construction, as you might have already noticed from the various fences now raised around the northwest corner of West 15th and San Antonio Streets. As described in our coverage from over a year ago, the project will replace a roughly quarter-acre surface parking lot at 502 West 15th Street with a structure developed by local private equity firm Scenic Capital Advisors and designed by Austin architecture studio Andersson / Wise, containing three levels of offices over two floors of structured parking, the first digging partially underground to keep the building beneath its height limit of 60 feet. (More on that later.)
The last time we looked at the project, its request for a variance related to its screening of the surface-level parking from the street had been unanimously denied by the Planning Commission — we explain it all in excruciating detail here, but basically the building’s proposed ground-level retail tenant of an art gallery wasn’t large enough to screen all the parking or provide what city staff deemed an acceptable pedestrian-oriented use on the ground level. We generally agreed with this determination, and while the design details aren’t all public record, it appears the plans for the building now approved by the city have been tweaked to contain two small additional ground-level retail spaces facing both West 15th Street and San Antonio Street on either side of the art gallery at the corner — they look just about right for a coffee shop or similar small-scale use.
The project now appears to be doing quite a bit more for the pedestrian life of its intersection, and it’s certainly an improvement over the parking lot — so why aren’t we happy? Bah gawd, that’s the Land Development Code’s music! Austin’s perpetual inability to refresh its antique development regulations goes a long way towards locking in bad patterns of land use around here, and we can’t help but see the five floors of this project (three, really, if you don’t count parking) as further evidence that this city’s numerous height restrictions — even the ones inside downtown, mind you — are leaving money and opportunity on the table.
Looking at the various downtown regions carved out of full eligibility in the Downtown Density Bonus Program, it appears the 502 tract is able to rise to a maximum of 120 feet by participating in the program, or about 10 floors, likely not enough extra density to justify the added cost of meeting the DDBP’s various eligibility requirements. Otherwise, the building’s height is limited to 60 feet under the property’s DMU zoning, despite the site’s location directly facing the major traffic corridor of West 15th Street — or the vastly more damning fact that the “Government Center” light rail station on Project Connect’s Orange Line is set to be built one block away from here.
In the end, it’s ultimately the city’s responsibility — not that of private developers, who will always seek to maximize profit and minimize risk — to incentivize more density around these transit nodes before the stations are built. Otherwise, by the time Project Connect finally cuts the ribbon, many of these prime locations for transit-oriented development will instead host permanent policy failures. Bummer, man.