In the blissful before-times of October 2019, as we unwittingly approached the conclusion of what we’re now calling the pre-pandemic era, we learned all about an office tower in the works downtown that would occupy the southern half of Block 16 in Austin’s original city plan — in other words, the bottom half of the block bound by San Jacinto Boulevard, Trinity Street, and East Second Street. Along with Fleming’s and Cafe Blue, that tract includes downtown’s only P.F. Chang’s at 201 San Jacinto Boulevard, but we’d much rather call it Block 16 than the P.F. Chang’s Tower.
Imagined by local developers Manifold Real Estate with design from usual downtown tower suspects Gensler Austin, the project’s initial city filings illustrated a fairly simple cuboid structure roughly 40 floors tall — but Gensler design director and friend of the site George Blume urged us to mention to our readers that these plans were extremely preliminary and liable to evolve. We’re glad we hedged our bets, because this building’s gone through some big changes in the last 10 months — and thanks to the project’s pending density bonus application with the City of Austin’s Design Commission, we now have a better idea of exactly what’s cooking at Block 16.
The building now described in these most recent documents and shown in the rendering above is a 47-floor, 723-foot tower with a distinctly different shape than the structure seen in earlier illustrations — the new model’s eastern setback and western cantilever give the whole thing a pleasingly asymmetrical appearance that’s certainly more interesting to look at than its previous incarnation, not to mention there’s a nice new rooftop patio amenity space on the eastern side where the mass is pulled back.
This updated design still contains approximately the same amount of office space as before, clocking in at about 733,000 square feet, plus 1,556 square feet of dining-oriented retail space split between opposite sides of its ground-floor public plaza. It’s also got a whopping 17 floors of above-ground parking, plus three bonus underground garage levels for good measure. Here’s a rough comparison between architectural illustrations of the old and new tower designs from all four sides:
Along with the obvious change of shape, by far the most interesting aspect of this tower’s design seen in these renderings is the angled, shingle-like overlapping glass curtain wall panels on each level — this same style of so-called “shingle wall” provided some texture to the facade of Manhattan’s 10 Hudson Yards tower in 2016. (We also think they kinda make the tower look like a suit of traditional Japanese armour.)
You can get a better idea of how these walls look up close in the two street-level views provided in these documents, showing the tower’s two most active corners:
While the building is comprised mostly of office space, the project proposes a civically minded ground level experience with two corner plazas that will be populated with vegetation and grand pieces of public art. The lobby will serve as an air conditioned extension to the plazas and will feature a rotating gallery hall to showcase local artists. The lobby will be fully accessible and open to the public during operating hours.
— Block 16 Project Summary
Here’s a floor plan for the tower’s ground level, showing the retail spaces on opposite sides of the lobby along with that civic plaza and other streetscape improvements — not to mention lots of new trees and a few old ones preserved as well:
Though the comparison is not exact, we think this tower’s off-center appearance has more than a casual resemblance to the unbuilt tower proposed for Fifth Street and Congress Avenue back around 2006 by developer Tom Stacy, which featured design from well-known architecture firm Pelli Clarke Pelli and also clocked in at 47 floors. Block 16 lacks the big diagonal face that defined the aggressive look of the Pelli tower, but you can still see what we’re talking about to a point:
We’ll find out more about the project and whether its design passes muster with the Design Commission when the item comes up for discussion at its meeting this coming Monday, August 24 — but for the time being, let’s address the other elephant in the room. As you know if you kept up with coverage of this tower back when it was first announced, the Block 16 site falls within the area where the Austin Convention Center might hope to expand, with previous plans indicating growth west of Trinity Street.
There are a lot of possible configurations for how this expansion could take place, but a tower at this site would likely cause some trouble for the center’s growth — and even with the current pandemic really limiting enthusiasm for large public gatherings, our intrepid convention officials and their wonk army at the mouthful of a firm HVS Convention, Sports and Entertainment Facilities Consulting announced in a memo earlier this week that COVID-19 wouldn’t interfere with expansion plans.
If you take the time to piece through the full memo document, which is a spectacular 148 pages long, you’ll eventually come across an updated report from Gensler Austin regarding the various challenges facing an expanding Austin Convention Center complex in this district, and spread across two paragraphs you’ll find the most important part of the whole document — we’ve bolded it for emphasis:
Land parcels identified in the earlier expansion plans have since been acquired and plans for their development are ongoing. White Lodging acquired the property fronting Cesar Chavez, between San Jacinto and Trinity Streets. A new Marriott Hotel is nearing completion on that site. The northern half of that same block has recently been purchased and tentative plans for another hotel are being considered. Block 16’s ownership has been exploring the potential for assembling the remainder of parcels between 2nd and 4th Streets to partner with the City to co-develop a vertically integrated tower/convention center expansion.
As this master plan update nears completion, a partnership has been struck with all land owners between Second Street, Trinity Street, Fourth Street and San Jacinto. This is an important step in moving forward with the West expansion.
— Gensler, Austin Convention Center Master Plan Update
Though it’s delivered very casually here, this is pretty exciting news. If the owners of these parcels directly adjacent to the Convention Center are willing to cooperate with the city, Gensler, as the designers behind both the Block 16 tower and the master plan for the center’s expansion in the first place, could dream up a multi-block mixed-use complex integrating the necessary extra convention space — while “vertically integrating,” as they say above, by possibly building one or more towers on top.
This solves the issue of a downtown convention center being a fairly low-density use of its land compared with taller buildings, one of our biggest frustrations about the center gobbling up more space — and you’ll notice the northern boundary of Fourth Street mentioned in the second paragraph we bolded in the quote above includes the eastern half of the Railyard Condos site. Though it’s hard to share the full enthusiasm of the convention expansion pushers who swear the pandemic won’t have any effect on demand, the possibility of a denser approach has us at least one click of the dial more excited about what’s going on in this corner of downtown.