The Capitol View Corridors protecting various perspectives of the Capitol dome throughout the central city are an effective metaphor for Austin itself, each an invisible monument to the decades-long spiritual battle between past and future defining so many aspects of our local culture. The CVCs shape the city’s built environment by projecting what are essentially dozens of invisible force fields limiting the scale of buildings across swaths of downtown and beyond, and recent growth just makes their effect more obvious — in some cases you’ll see new towers bending and ducking to avoid them. (On top of 26 city CVCs, there are nine more designated by the State of Texas, which seems to like people being able to see where their laws are made.)
Like almost any measure of historical protection applied to private property, the CVC represents a trade-off — the city chooses to sacrifice tax revenues from blocked development in favor of ensuring the iconic architecture of the Capitol remains visible from parts of the city where it would otherwise be eclipsed by larger, newer buildings. A lot of people are happy with this trade, and we enjoy the effect of the corridors from its most photogenic perspectives, which include Congress Avenue, the main mall of the University of Texas, and the gateway to East Austin on East 11th Street.
But a number of the corridors were explicitly designed in the 1980s to protect brief glimpses of the Capitol for highway drivers on I-35 and Mopac, which is a little silly. Sillier still is the fact that the upcoming expansion of I-35 by the Texas Department of Transportation will soon remove the elevated lanes that currently enjoy these protected views, meaning some corridors will protect a completely inaccessible perspective floating in space above a highway. The question of what the city plans to do about these specific corridors once the highway expansion makes them irrelevant is also kinda floating in space at the moment, with unnamed city staffers describing the issue as a third rail nobody wants to touch first.
TxDOT's I-35 rendering versus something closer to reality.
This is the reality of how many lanes full of cars and 18-wheelers we're about to induce if we don't stop this madness.
— Hey it's Yorgos (@HeyYorgos) August 16, 2023
Of course, we’re more than happy to touch that rail. There’s a specific example of the negative effects of one of the city’s doomed highway-facing corridors taking shape right now in the Red River Cultural District at 502 East Eighth Street, a site currently occupied by several surface parking lots. (Capitol View Corridors also help keep surface parking lots and low-rise garage structures as the most economically viable uses for several prime downtown sites, for what it’s worth. “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?”)
The 0.6-acre site near the corner of East Eighth and Neches Streets is set to be developed by hotelier Vijay Patel with a TownePlace Suites by Marriott, a mid-tier chain hotel project rising a mere four stories due to the limits of city CVC #14, which passes over almost the entire property and protects a view of the Capitol from the elevated deck of I-35 near East Sixth Street that lasts approximately six seconds during fast-moving traffic conditions. (Somebody else did the counting, not us.)
Once TxDOT’s mad science project to widen the highway wraps up either a decade or a few centuries from now, the upper deck traffic currently enjoying that view corridor will no longer exist at its current elevation, but the four-story hotel will remain. That’s a lot of potential money left on the table, and it’s happening across a number of soon-defunct view corridors just like this.
But the likely reason nobody at the city is dying to address this issue is that corridors like CVC #14 inadvertently protect cultural assets that sprang up in their shadow, like wildflowers blooming near the condensation drain of a central air unit. This wasn’t the original intent of the corridors, but it complicates their situation now — in the case of CVC #14, a number of bars and venues in the Red River Cultural District like Empire Control Room, the Side Bar, and Valhalla are protected from redevelopment by its path, and this will likely be the case even after the upper deck of I-35 is demolished.
Removing the defunct view corridors after the highway project’s completion could unlock a huge amount of development potential on the east end of downtown, and we think it’s ultimately the right idea. But with an I-35 construction timeline of nearly a decade ahead of us, now would be a great time to start the conversation about how we might also protect the existing businesses in this region with landmark zoning or other historic designations. It’s never been done before, but we’ll gladly say it first — though its merit is largely found on cultural grounds rather than extensive architectural integrity, the Red River area is probably the city’s best candidate for a downtown local historic district. Maybe, just maybe, some of those dollars from the taller development enabled by removing the highway view corridors could be reinvested into the future of that district. How’s that for a grand bargain?