Explosive growth, which would eventually come to define Austin despite storied resistance from its slacker set, really arrived at the dawn of the 1980s. That decade saw the development of a dozen buildings over 15 floors in height in the downtown area alone, and though Austin didn’t experience the stereotypical excess of the era compared to either Dallas or “Dallas,” the arrival of big money in what many residents still considered a small college town raised iconic towers like One American Center and One Eleven Congress, which mark the center of our widening skyline to this day.
Of course, this first boom was not without its busts.
WatersMark made its debut in 1981, the same year its developers, the Dallas-based Criswell Development Company, finished construction on the Hyatt Regency hotel on the south bank of what was then still called Town Lake. Criswell, known for its later role in developing Dallas’ Fountain Place office tower — a late-modernist masterpiece by the firm of the late I.M. Pei — had luxury on the brain while planning a new residential development for Austin in 1979. The firm hired Harry Weese, celebrated for the design of Washington, D.C.’s Metro system and one of the future masterminds of the Fountain Place tower alongside architects Pei and Henry N. Cobb, to dream up an Austin condo tower unlike any other.
First announced in late 1981 as The Waterford but renamed shortly after, WatersMark would be the highest of high-end condo buildings, its 176 units housed in twin towers topped by “fanciful mission tile roofs.” But the biggest selling point wasn’t necessarily how it looked, but where it was — perched on stilts over an artificial island carved from the southern shore of the lake. This bizarre design feature was possible only by the unique location of Criswell’s property, a 5.5-acre tract sandwiched between the Congress Avenue Bridge and the headquarters of the Austin American-Statesman:
This site is now occupied by the newspaper’s printing center and parking lot, along with the observation area for the nearby bridge’s famous bat population — but at the time, the property was entirely undeveloped outside of the Hike-and-Bike trail running along the shore. Criswell’s plan was to carve out a new channel on this land that the lake would fill, creating the appearance of an island by eating up a chunk of the shoreline. The first WatersMark tower would straddle this inlet, half its stilts on the island and half on the mainland, with the trail also passing beneath the structure.
The second tower, which Criswell expected to build after finishing and selling the first, would remain squarely on the mainland, but the luxurious effect of the island was clear. According to Stephen Van, the developer’s regional partner on the project, the average price for units in the buildings would be more than $300,000, or roughly $840,000 when adjusted for inflation. Van claimed in news coverage that the tower’s penthouses could sell for more than $1 million, or “whatever we can get for them.” The development’s stated cost totaled $60 million, or $170 million in 2019 dollars.
With almost four decades of context separating 1980s Austin from the present day, perhaps the strangest part of WatersMark is just how close its developers came to succeeding. It’s hard to imagine such a dramatic plan for altering the lake’s shoreline would ever pass muster in 2019, the project’s design looking closer to a political ad intended to terrify the city’s environmental advocates than anything someone might genuinely attempt to build. Still, Criswell easily attained recommendations from the city’s Parks and Environmental Boards, and by January 1982 had also received the unanimous support of both the Planning Commission and City Council itself.
The developers took this opportunity to run another full-page ad in the Statesman:
Despite the high levels of civic enthusiasm, WatersMark’s downfall came swiftly. In November 1982, roughly 11 months after Criswell partner Stephen Van first described the project in the Statesman, he appeared once again in the paper announcing its cancellation and the property’s pending sale to Austin investor William “Dick” Benson.
Criswell had already sunk a reported $1 million into WatersMark’s design and marketing, with $25,000 alone spent on a scale model of the project Van told reporters might make a good centerpiece for his children’s model train set. “The bottom has fallen out of the high-rise condo market,” he explained, with the project’s lender requiring the presale of 20 units before it would advance financing for construction — and despite six months of advertising, the developer only secured five of those sales.
“The presale has to appeal to investors. People are buying a $500,000 item from pictures and dreams,” Van said. “That category of individual is wary of the future. Everyone liked the project and believed in Austin, but the times just weren’t right.”
— Austin American-Statesman, November 13, 1982
Even with the upcoming redevelopment of the Statesman site as part of the city’s larger South Central Waterfront Initiative, the strange and brief story of WatersMark’s plan for this property — its imagined “island” region now used mostly for nightly bat-watching — appears completely forgotten in the annals of Weird Austin.
Local developer William Hurd briefly considered a hotel complex at the property, known as Campanile Del Mar or “Tower of the Sea,” before going bankrupt in 1986. The Statesman expanded its headquarters over the land shortly afterward. Even the dead project’s name was soon recycled, with most Austinites knowing “WatersMark” only as an unrelated gated community built on Barton Creek in the 1990s.
Stephen Van’s still around, though — leaving Criswell soon after the WatersMark plan fell through, he founded Dallas hospitality group Prism Hotels & Resorts in 1983 and serves as the company’s CEO to this day. Van didn’t have much to add to the story, but says he fondly remembers both the 10 a.m. design meetings and 11:30 a.m. martini lunches he enjoyed with Harry Weese in Chicago while hashing out the details of the development. It’s really a perfect anecdote for this project — from its extravagant ambition to its ultimate decline, the curious history of WatersMark characterizes nearly everything about the booming Austin of the 1980s.
Though the city’s current growth patterns have long outlasted older periods of expansion, there’s still something striking about the audacity of the island plan versus many of Austin’s modern projects, which seem almost a little too safe by comparison. It’s fitting that the final line of the condo tower’s advertising copy inadvertently foretold its own obsolescence — no matter what we build tomorrow, there’s only one island, only one WatersMark, and there will never be another.