A rezoning case headed to Austin’s Planning Commission next week indicates a longtime industrial tract in the far northwest corner of downtown is preparing to redevelop as high-rise housing. Located at 615 West MLK Jr. Boulevard between Nueces and Rio Grande Streets, for decades the roughly 0.68-acre tract has hosted the central laundry facilities of the local Jack Brown Cleaners chain.
Documents prepared for the Planning Commission’s inaugural meeting of 2023 scheduled for January 10 describe a request by the Brown family partnership that owns the property for a rezoning from commercial services to a downtown mixed-use/vertical mixed-use zoning category in order to redevelop the site for a multifamily building. With the tract’s proximity to West Campus directly north of MLK Jr. Boulevard, it’s easy to forget that this property is a full-fledged occupant of the downtown area — meaning under the DMU-V zoning sought by the applicants, a building here could rise to a maximum height of 120 feet, likely 10 floors or more, thanks to the new density bonuses of the city’s vertical-mixed use program.
Previously, the site would only be able to seek a more restricted version of DMU zoning that would limit the height of any building here to 60 feet, despite the property’s location along a major transportation corridor and a few blocks from the upcoming Project Connect rail line. With these facts in mind, city staff have recommended the zoning change, and we don’t expect the Planning Commission to disagree when the item shows up at next week’s meeting:
…with the adoption of VMU2 and modification of compatibility and parking requirements along certain roadways, the City Council has signaled that they are supportive of additional height on major corridors.
The staff supports DMU-V zoning at this location because it is consistent with the DMU designation in the Downtown Area Plan (DAP). The addition of the “V”, VMU overlay, will permit the applicant to provide multifamily housing at this location and will encourage the development of more on-site affordable units. The proposed housing is consistent with the goals and priorities that have been identified in the City of Austin’s Strategic Housing Blueprint.
— City Staff Report
The existing building at the site originally opened as Burton’s Laundry in 1939, later occupied by the laundry facility of Jack Brown Cleaners starting in the early 1970s. While the chain still persists all around Austin, the patriarch and namesake of the business Jack Taylor Brown died in 2017. (On another note, part of the structure was reportedly once home to Austin’s first 24-hour 7-Eleven convenience store back in the 1960s, which might merit some sort of historical marker.)
This case signals not only the growing momentum of development pressure in the long-sleepy northwest corner of downtown, but the unique factors shaping a lot of that development in this region — despite being officially within downtown, a lot of sites in the northwest quadrant of the district face limitations due to the presence of historic, largely single-family homes in neighborhoods like Judge’s Hill.
You might think that downtown is the one place Austinites don’t mind tall buildings, but the truth is a little more complicated. Thankfully, projects like the Jack Brown site’s redevelopment appear pretty uncontroversial to most people, which makes sense when West Campus is throwing up 30-story towers a few blocks north of here. Look at the situation with fresh eyes and ask yourself — does it really make sense to limit any new building in downtown to 60 feet? We’re building taller than that in Zilker.