If you follow the (metaphorical) twists and turns of the so-called Main Street of Texas on the downtown stretch of Congress Avenue, you might also know the frustratingly extended story of three adjacent storefronts at 907, 909, and 911 Congress Avenue. The 907 and 909 buildings, both dating back to the 1880s, have historic designation — they’re known as the Grandberry Building and Mitchell‐Robertson Building, respectively — and all three are inside the Congress Avenue Historic District.
Yup, that’s three boarded-up buildings right next to each other. Don’t let the mural distract you.
These properties have sat completely vacant for an insane length of time, with the last occupant of the 907 building specifically dating back to 1994. Even in a wild real estate market it’s more than possible for this to happen, but the deterioration of the historic facades on these structures has been a matter of concern for city preservation staff for more than a decade now. The condition of the buildings is so poor that in 2014 all three properties received a designation for what’s known as “demolition by neglect” — allowing a historic building to decay to the degree that it can’t be easily restored.
The owner of all three addresses, Dalton Wallace, has proposed redevelopment plans for these properties more than once. A 2006 effort involved a four-story development for only the 907 and 909 tracts, which would effectively raise the existing facades by two additional floors — providing ground-level retail in the restored storefronts, a floor of office space, then two floors containing 10 residential units, with two more levels excavated below grade for underground parking.
This seemed like pretty good infill, particularly for the lower-budget 2006 edition of Austin, but the goofy thing about it was the project planned to replicate the design of the old facades on those two extra floors, the type of Disneyland stuff our local design and preservation guidelines very strongly dislike these days — even in 2006, the Historic Landmark Commission recommended a further setback of the top two floors to provide that all-important delineation between old and new.
The 2006 plan sputtered out, but a new design for an office tower atop all three adjacent properties showed up in 2010, which would rise 16 floors with a fully modern appearance from Dallas firm HKS Architects, set back a good bit from the historic facades — and as part of the project, all three storefronts would be restored for use as ground-floor retail space. In 2014, HKS informed the city that the deterioration of the properties made the masonry facades unsuitable for bracing where they stood during the rest of the development, instead requiring deconstruction and rebuilding with the original materials at the conclusion of the project.
The Historic Landmark Commission provided a tentative approval of the concept in 2015 and 2018, but the applicant’s detailed plans for this facade deconstruction were never finalized to the commission’s satisfaction. Now, with a fresh round of city code violations against the still-decaying properties last year, it appears the deconstruction plans are finally back, seemingly in preparation for a new development at the site that may or may not look like the 2010 office tower plan — and there’s a new sense of urgency thanks to a deadline imposed by the city’s Building Standards Commission:
On March 24, 2021, the Building Standards Commission issued an order requiring that conditions be remedied within 90 days or imposing fines on the property owner.
Per the applicant, stabilization of the buildings in place is not technically feasible due to the extent of deterioration, including mortar loss, shear failures and racking, and the inability to adequately shore the façades following demolition of masonry party walls that provide lateral support. The wall abutting the adjacent historic landmark building, in particular, requires demolition to allow that property owner to perform needed repairs.
The proposed scope of work entails developing a detailed plan for deconstruction and reconstruction of the historic façades, including as an initial phase: review of existing documentation, visual and non-destructive analysis of building materials and assemblies, structural evaluation, and development of a finalized scope of work and sequence of implementation. Laser scanning will be performed. Deconstruction will be done by hand and treated much like an archeological investigation, with specific conditions and hidden elements documented as work progresses. This information will inform preparation of reconstruction drawings and specifications.
The applicant proposes to place a restrictive covenant on the property requiring reconstruction within three years.
— Historic Landmark Commission Staff Report, April 26
That last part, the suggestion of a restrictive covenant agreement requiring a relatively quick reconstruction of the dismantled facades, would ensure that the project gets done within our lifetimes — without it, there’s technically nothing stopping the applicant and its architects at local firm Carter Design Associates from tearing these structures down and delaying their reconstruction indefinitely, with the same seemingly infinite timeline as the vacancy of the properties themselves.
But after months of discussion and the particulars of the plan outlined above, the Historic Landmark Commission unanimously voted late last month to delay the deconstruction item once more to its May 24 meeting. The concern from commissioners is that the scope of the potential new development at this site is what’s prompting the applicants to claim the bracing of these facades during construction isn’t feasible, rather than the condition of the buildings themselves.
The three structures have been vacant and have not been maintained for many years. As such the buildings have become dilapidated and have been exposed to the elements for quite some time. The existing wooden framed roof and upper floor systems are damaged extensively and have created a life/safety concern. The original masonry walls that divide the buildings are for the most part in acceptable condition. The existing main level slabs appear to be performing adequately.
The existing façades are quite damaged and in need of extensive repair. Supporting steel beams are very old and compromised and are exhibiting signs of excessive deflection. Exposure has also contributed to their loss of structural integrity.
— Engineering Report, 907-911 Congress, Structures PE, LLP
While we’re listing concerns, commissioners also worried that the reconstruction of the facades wouldn’t end up using much of their original materials, with the project instead becoming more like a replica of the old buildings rather than what we typically might understand as a restoration — after this much neglect, many of the materials in question might not even be suitable for reuse.
It’s a complicated, frustrating situation for the applicant and city alike, but you’ll find deeper roots of civic negligence underlying the years-long saga of these properties. It’s obvious that the owner shouldn’t have allowed the structures to deteriorate to this degree, but what’s far more concerning is the city’s failure to force action towards the protection of these buildings over the course of decades.
After numerous code violations and the approval of a demolition by neglect case a full seven years ago, taking no further steps to save these properties on Austin’s most important downtown street is an outrageous oversight, particularly in a city all too concerned with the preservation of mundane suburban homes over other historic gems, some of them even city-owned, that are left to rot for decades — the Norwood Estate and the Castleman-Bull House are just two screaming examples. You might call these priorities completely ass-backwards.
Whatever the case, we’ll likely learn more about the poor shape of these facades at the meeting later this month, along with maybe a few further details of the larger development expected for the site that could potentially get some use out of this long-empty row of properties — just remember that whatever the outcome, we probably shouldn’t let this specific situation happen again.