Let’s say you’re building an office building on top of a parking garage in a pedestrian-heavy area of downtown. Though some projects manage to get away with not doing it for various tricky reasons, for a building of this variety Austin’s land development code typically requires parking garages to be screened from the street by a “pedestrian-oriented use.” Here’s what the code considers pedestrian-oriented:
There’s room for argument, but we think by far the easiest one of these uses to accomplish is the first, an art gallery. It doesn’t present the logistical challenge of stocking and staffing a major retail business, there’s no kitchen for food or drinks, no seating for customers, and so on — you go there to just kind of stand around and look at the walls, and maybe you can buy a painting. Don’t need much space for that.
That’s probably why two major Austin residential tower projects in the last two years have used art galleries, either fully in the case of the East Tower or in part alongside other retail for the Linden condos, to satisfy the code’s desire for active pedestrian uses — we’re not saying the developers are lazy, it’s just the simplest way to satisfy the regulations while securing the largest return on investment, since they’re making a lot more money from the building’s main use than any small retail component.
But despite its appearance in two recent upcoming tower developments, this approach doesn’t always work. That hypothetical office building we mentioned earlier is in fact a very real project currently in the planning stages downtown at 502 West 15th Street, a roughly quarter-acre property currently serving as a parking lot at the northwest corner of West 15th and San Antonio Streets.
The four-story building proposed here by the property’s owner, Moore JH 502, LLC — an entity associated with downtown Austin law firm McGinnis Lochridge — hopes to conceal its ground-level parking with an art gallery facing the corner, but due to the constraints of the site that gallery only screens some of the parking spaces.
Six spaces on this level — one facing San Antonio Street and three facing West 15th Street — would still be hidden from pedestrian view in this design by a perforated and backlit ground-level metal screen, its cosmetic features inspired by the geology of Shoal Creek and the nearby moonlight tower across the street.
Still, even if it looks nice and hides all the cars, this design would require a partial waiver from the City of Austin’s Planning Commission, since the 625-square-foot art gallery space doesn’t do all the work of separating the ground-level parking from the street — the building itself has 36 spaces total in a split-level configuration with access ramps from both San Antonio Street and the alley running down the building’s west side. Per the land development code, it’s possible to secure a waiver if the property in question meets one or more of these three requirements:
25-6-591(D): The Land Use Commission may waive the requirement of Subsection (B)(5) of this section during the site plan review process after determining that:
(1) present and anticipated development in the area is not amenable to access by pedestrians;
(2) the requirement does not allow a reasonable use of the property; or
(3) other circumstances attributable to the property make compliance impractical.
— City of Austin Land Development Code
Unfortunately for the applicant and the architects behind the design of the building from local studio Andersson/Wise, members of the Planning Commission were unconvinced that the project met any of those waiver requirements, voting unanimously at a meeting last week to support the recommendations of city staff that the waiver not be granted. It’s important to point out that the art gallery itself isn’t completely the issue here, but rather the fact that it’s only partially screening the building’s parking — if the gallery extended to wrap the entire parking area and thus didn’t require a waiver, there’s a decent chance this project would meet at least the letter of the code’s requirements, even if it wasn’t popular.
While staff acknowledges the size and configuration constraints, Staff recommends denial of the waiver on the basis that the site is well located and configured to support pedestrian oriented uses on the first floor. There is no existing or proposed development which would limit pedestrian access to future uses on the site and existing pedestrian traffic is likely to provide sufficient economic support for a well selected pedestrian oriented use.
— Planning Commission Staff Report
But even with an art gallery as an option approved by the city’s existing code, the question remained among members of the Commission and other parties in opposition to the plan — including the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association and its board member Chris Riley, who testified against the waiver — whether this gallery in particular came anywhere close to constituting a pedestrian-friendly use. Riley, a former member of Austin City Council and nearby resident, called the gallery space a “new low” in terms of technical compliance with the code’s requirements, describing the feature as almost literal window dressing.
Sometimes you have a developer who’s not so excited about providing [pedestrian-oriented] uses, so you wind up with this very narrow use, a narrow space, and often these spaces haven’t worked out very well. It’s really kind of a stretch to call it a pedestrian-oriented use . . . it’s not the sort of thing you’d actually walk into, it’s something you look at from the window of your car as you drive by.
— Chris Riley, Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association
Riley cited the presence of a Starbucks and 7-11 store on other corners of the same intersection as evidence that this area was one of the neighborhood’s most vibrant pedestrian spaces — remember that one of the qualifiers for the waiver is that the property in question is “not amenable” to access by pedestrians, which doesn’t seem to apply here. Other constraints on the site include a heritage tree near the proposed building’s northern property line, which the developers are choosing to preserve at the cost of some of the building’s square footage. The design as shown here would add pedestrian features like trees, benches, and bike parking along West 15th Street.
One of the features of the gallery space pointed out several times in the presentation at the meeting by Andersson-Wise designer Chase Humphrey is that the art would be visible through the windows of the space at all times, day and night, providing something nice for the neighborhood even after business hours when the gallery is closed. The gallery, which Humphrey said would provide rent-free space to display student works from the University of Texas’ College of Fine Arts, will be open during the day — but its interior is only about eight feet wide along West 15th Street and 10 feet wide on San Antonio Street, a very small percentage of the overall ground floor.
We believe we’re following the spirit of the code by providing a pedestrian use and completely concealing all vehicles from pedestrians along West 15th Street . . . I’ve been to plenty of galleries that are very small, very shallow.
— Chase Humphrey, Andersson/Wise
Based on simply the letter of the code requiring full screening of parking by pedestrian-oriented uses, the decision from Commissioners to support the findings of city staff and deny the partial waiver comes as no surprise — and in our mind, it’s totally the right call. But apart from the code, the more interesting aspect of this case and its associated discussion is the fairly philosophical question of whether an art gallery really meets the city’s goals of vibrant pedestrian life, and if so, how big should that gallery have to be, and what should it offer the public? What does it need to do?
Though the timeline is more depressingly uncertain than ever before, as we enter a new year and Austin once again faces down the possibility of a rewritten land development code that better encompasses the needs of an increasingly urban city core, conversations about these types of design issues, the ones that impact the people on the ground the most, ought to be at the heart of the discussion — on top of everything else, of course. Until then, we’ll see how this project’s designers adapt their plans after heading back to the drawing board.