The Rainey Street District of downtown Austin is currently home to at least four planned tower projects expected to exceed 40 floors or more in height, one of which if built would become the tallest building in the state — and with other towers like Natiivo, 44 East Avenue, and the East Tower, East Avenue is fast becoming the neighborhood’s most interesting corridor for growth besides Rainey Street itself.
But all that fascinating growth hasn’t stopped a different kind of project from taking over the north end of East Avenue — the chain hotel. The first salvo arrived a few years back with the opening of the 17-story Homewood Suites by Hilton at 78 East Avenue, its seemingly Van Halen-inspired facade gunning hard for the title of most unattractive new building downtown in the last decade. Two more neighbors are now on the way, with longstanding plans for a Fairfield by Marriott at 76 East Avenue — just south of the Homewood Suites — and a 15-floor Cambria Hotel planned south of the Fairfield site atop a land assembly spanning 68-72 East Avenue. (Cambria is a brand of Choice Hotels International, one of the largest hospitality franchisers in the world.)
If you’re paying attention, that’s three chain hotels planned right next door to one another on East Avenue, a literal stone’s throw from what might be Austin’s most nationally-recognized entertainment district where you don’t go to jail. The status of the Cambria is a little unclear, but it appears site prep is currently underway for the Fairfield project even as we speak — a 17-story, 126-room hotel by Corpus Christi-based hospitality developer Palak Investments, sporting a gray and reddish-orange color scheme suspiciously similar to the look of the Homewood Suites next door.
The Fairfield Inn & Suites located in downtown Austin stands 17 floors, measures 192 feet to the top of the roof, spans 152,174 square feet and houses 126 guest rooms. The first floor features a large lobby, lounge, dining area and pantry market for grab-and-go conveniences. A fitness room and Presidential Suite are located on the top two floors and the rooftop offers an outdoor terrace, multi-use room, spa tub and sweeping views of Austin. Several guest rooms come equipped with outdoor balconies and the 57,930-square-foot concrete parking garage provides adequate parking for its guests.
We’re complaining about this because projects like the Fairfield represent a limited use of space in a district where space itself is limited. Rainey derives its eclectic character (and growing mobility struggles) in part from the tight quarters of its original neighborhood-scaled street grid, making it uniquely compact even by downtown standards — and this lack of space increases our desire for new projects to maximize their contributions to the district’s urban environment by containing both ample density and active street-level presence. It appears the Fairfield does neither, the building’s floor count ringing in way under the property’s maximum entitlements and lacking any retail on the ground floor unless you count the free breakfast buffet.
Still, as much as they frustrate our delicate aesthetic sensibilities, projects like the Fairfield serve a purpose in the market by offering budget-priced lodging to Rainey visitors who value proximity but might not want to pay the premium rates of the swanky nearby Hotel Van Zandt or the Fairmont Austin — we’ll have to see if the hotel also significantly undercuts Natiivo’s rental rates, but either way it’s cornering a certain market. It wouldn’t be so bad if these projects had restaurants or bars on the ground levels to keep the action going beyond Rainey Street itself, but there’s another obstacle making that less likely — the State of Texas itself, if you can believe it.
76 East Avenue, future home of the Fairfield — in this year-old street view it’s being used for construction staging on a different project, but site prep is now underway.
The Fairfield, like the Homewood Suites before it, is technically located in that weird hard-to-map area where East Avenue bleeds into the I-35 Frontage Road, meaning its frontage is under the big boot of the Texas Department of Transportation rather than the city. As nearby projects like the East Tower have demonstrated, TxDOT will not approve streetscapes inside its jurisdiction designed for the requirements of Austin’s Great Streets program, meaning these buildings will be notably less accommodating to the heavy pedestrian traffic that defines this district — just when you thought I-35 couldn’t possibly find another way to screw us.