Hey, who would win in a wrestling match: Capitol View Corridors, or God?
Trick question — Capitol View Corridors are God. Okay, maybe I’m kidding just for the sake of an oblique reference to an American classic, but they both do a bang-up job hanging out all invisible up in the sky just waiting to cold-cock any enterprise of man that presumes to protrude beyond his appointed station. Tower of Babel, anyone?
Optimists will tell you that CVCs at least incentivize interesting design choices for architects trying to fit as much building as possible around the state-protected sightlines of the Texas State Capitol dome. But in some of the most restrictive cases, the little boogers preclude any productive design at all, and the knock-on effects of this attempt at preservation shackle parts of downtown Austin’s history from adding any net value to their future.
Such is the case at Block 126, the Travis County-owned city block bound by Lavaca, 10th, Guadalupe, and 11th Streets; sandwiched between the Governor’s Mansion and the Heman Marion Sweatt Courthouse. It currently features a two-story office building on its northern side, a single-story constabulary in its southwestern corner, and a whole lot of surface parking in between.
A full three Capitol View Corridors soar over this block, but by far the most disruptive is the one reserving a clear view of Austin’s favorite dome from Wooldridge Square, just to the southwest of Block 126. Last August, the county tapped the Urban Land Institute to assemble a panel of experts to take a look at the site and spitball some ideas to squeeze out a skosh more value. The assignment outlined four goals:
- Provide enough parking to offset the planned demolition and redevelopment of the county-owned garage on San Antonio Street just west of Wooldridge Square.
- Activate the thoroughly inactive Wooldridge Square Park.
- Search for “market-driven” and “realistic” outcomes that represent the “best and highest use of the block.”
- Consider the inclusion of community benefits such as affordable housing.
So, after a period of thoughtful study and consideration of seven separate options for developing the block, ULI came back with a diagnosis: We’re doomed. Scraping the whole thing and converting it into a parking lot would be cheap, it concludes, but where’s the community benefit? How does that activate the park? Creating some sort of event space or sculpture garden could liven things up a bit, but fails to address the parking sitch, an issue that also kneecaps the possibility of a small affordable housing project as well as the fairly ambitious concept of an underground courthouse topped by single-story retail.
Most significantly, the ULI report also effectively puts the final nail in the coffin of a plan adopted for Block 126 back in 2009. That concept would have built a wedge-shaped mid-rise into the northeastern corner of the site, and wrapped a single-story, L-shaped retail space along Lavaca and 10th Streets. An “urban plaza” would be raked in between them, providing a sort of physical corridor linking Wooldridge Square with the Capitol’s own verdant grounds.
“Panelists felt this option would provide full development potential within CVC constraints,” the report beams optimistically, right before adding a very big But: “It would, however, be very expensive and the parking and retail could exceed market and County needs.”
For reasons beyond human comprehension, the 2009 plan would have somehow fit into its limited footprint — take a deep sip of coffee and hold it in your mouth — 1,200 new parking spaces.
By comparison, the county’s massive eight-level parking colossus at 8th and Lavaca Streets holds a paltry 700 vehicles. Assuming a roughly average length of 15 feet per car, a single-file line of people waiting to pull into this massive garage would stretch all the way up to 51st Street.
Mark Gilbert, a top county planning ace, tells me the thing would burrow down — not into the earth’s mantle, as I would have guessed, but rather a mere four levels. A mere four awfully-broad levels. Gilbert concedes that the county isn’t married to building such an eye-popping amount of parking, and that such capacity could be achieved through leases with other providers in the area. Hey, it’s also worth pointing out the billion transit lines that service a stop just one block over!
But this all seems to be moot for the time being. The county’s master plan calls for the office workers on Block 126 to ultimately relocate into the new civil courthouse, should that passion project ever be realized — it’s certainly not happening on this block. Even so, if the dream comes true elsewhere, the courthouse won’t be taking new tenants until 2023 at the earliest, leaving Block 126 in stasis until then. In the meantime, Wooldridge Square, one of Austin’s original public spaces, will continue to languish for lack of actual public to fill its plentiful space.
Back in the day, when the area surrounding it was covered with residences rather than drive-thru banks, the park was the go-to place for political functions. A local fellow named Lyndon Johnson kicked off his first campaign for the U.S. Senate from the charming little bandstand at the bottom of the natural amphitheater. Nowadays, it’s mostly a big empty failure bowl of wasted potential, despite our seemingly perennial optimism for the square’s future.
In 2007, the Wooldridge Square CVC was one of just a few recommended for deletion by the Downtown Commission. That report was met by wails of protest by preservationists statewide and summarily shelved. But more than ten years later, as the city considers adding new CVCs while plans for I-35 threaten to render others obsolete, maybe the city could lend the county and Wooldridge Square a hand — mainly, by revisiting whether we really need to protect the view of a building from a park that is only two blocks away from that building.