Changes at the top

A high-rise building boom is reshaping Austin's skyline.
But how will we like the new look?

Like Austin’s skyline?

Then snap a photo — because it won’t look that way for much longer.

Building by building, a wave of skyscraper construction is gradually altering the city’s visual identity yet again.

“Skylines are deeply revealing of the inner economic and social character of cities,” said Trevor Boddy, a Vancouver, British Columbia, architecture critic. “Even the most ambitious city planners, mayors or developers cannot design them — they are an organic expression of the vitality of the city.”

A look at towers coming to Austin's skyline:
Colorado Tower
Project type: Office building
Address: 303 Colorado St.
Stories: 30
Status: Complete

They also impact a city’s reputation, said Dani Tristan, an associate commercial real estate broker and downtown development watcher.

“If you have creative and/or unusual structures you’ll have recognition, like the Seattle skyline for example. If the Space Needle was never built, you’d never recognize the skyline, it would be just boring and boxy,” Tristan said.

Which means the architecture of the high-rise buildings currently sprouting around Austin will leave its mark — for better or worse — on the city’s character.

In looking at new and proposed towers, architectural experts and other observers have mixed views on what statement the new skyscrapers are going to make.

The Independent
Project type: Condos
Address: 301 West Ave.
Stories: 58
Status: Planned

One of the city’s most talked-about new towers is the Independent, a proposed 58-story condominium high-rise with a stacked design that has won it the nickname the “Jenga Tower.”

“It looks great on paper — extremely interesting,” said Mandy Dealey, who has served on city advisory commissions where developers present their projects. “If they pull it off, it will be fabulous. But it could be an eyesore. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.”

The 56-story Austonian is currently the tallest residential tower west of the Mississippi. Photo by Jay Janner/2014 American-Statesman

Raising the design bar

The evolution of Austin’s skyline has, generally, come in fits and starts.

The first downtown high-rise wave began in the 1980s, with large granite and limestone office buildings erected to house employees of the region’s growing banks, law firms and professional services providers.

The next round began in the early 2000s and included the 33-story Frost Bank Tower, the first new office tower to be built downtown since the 1980s. When Frost Bank Tower debuted in late 2003, it became a landmark. Topped with a signature translucent crown, it was the city’s tallest building at the time, and its dynamic glass design marked a departure from tradition.

The Bowie
Project type: Apartments
Address: 311 Bowie St.
Stories: 36
Status: Complete

Today, with hotel and residential development driving the building boom, design expectations have risen, architects say.

“In the past, the thinking by a number of developers building here was ‘Austin is a secondary market so we don’t really need to put as much design effort into a building here as we would be putting into one in Houston or Dallas or Chicago,’” said Brett Rhode of architecture firm Rhode: Partners. “I think the ante has been upped over the course of the past five years. The bar is being set higher.”

Project type: Hotel
Address: 101 Red River St.
Stories: 37
Status: Under construction

Rhode’s firm is designing the Independent, the talked-about tower due to break ground early next year on downtown’s southwestern edge.

With the Independent, Rhode said, “We felt this was a great opportunity to push the envelope a little bit and start talking about some different ideas. It was a little controversial at first, we were a little nervous. But the more input we’re getting, we feel confident it was the right thing.”

Fifth & West Residences
Project type: Condos
Address: 501 West Ave.
Stories: 39
Status: Under construction

Austin architect Michael Hsu said that, in the past, Austin downtown projects have intentionally taken a low-key design approach that doesn’t draw attention. But he said that’s changing, and that the city is ready.

“We’re still afraid of big towers that maybe are really ostentatious,” said Hsu, whose recent projects include Fifth & West, a 39-story condo tower under construction downtown. “But I think it’s the job of the skyscraper to sort of be that. To not be apologetic, to hold its place in a city and be an icon.”

Hsu said that’s the role the Independent is playing.

“I’m really excited about it because of its height and what it’s going to do to change the scale of downtown,” Hsu said.

Project type: Apartments/retail/office
Address: 110 San Antonio St.
Stories: 38
Status: Under construction

But Boddy, the Vancouver architecture critic, said he sees little originality in the designs of most of Austin’s newly built and planned skyscrapers.

“The renderings tell me nearly all of these are by and large conservative corporate firms,” Boddy said. “Texas and Austin are home to some of the finest architects on the continent, but it seems few developers in your town trust the innovators and most gifted talents with large building commissions.”

In other cities, “when young and creative architects get tower commissions, originality results,” Boddy said. He cited Jeanne Gang’s work in Chicago, Ma Yansong’s curvaceous “Marilyn Monroe” towers outside Toronto, Bjarke Ingels’ 32-story tetrahedron, called West 57, in New York, and “almost anything by Vancouver tower maestro James Cheng, including the Azure Tower in Dallas.”

The Frost Bank Tower, at right, was the tallest building in downtown Austin when it opened in late 2003. Mark Matson/For 2003 American-Statesman

‘Role of each tall building’

Cities have varying rules and degrees of influence over the design of tall buildings on their skylines.

In Toronto — a city that has experienced more tall building construction in the past 12 years than any other North American city — urban design manager James Parakh said city officials prefer not having every high-rise become a “‘hey-look-at-me building.’”

“In Doha or Dubai, that’s what you have. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s just not us,” Parakh said. “We try hard to understand the role of each tall building in the skyline — how it should appear on the skyline as well as how it meets the street. We don’t want buildings to resemble bowling trophies; we want a collection of good urban buildings.”

500 W. 2nd Street
Project type: Office
Address: 500 W. 2nd St.
Stories: 29
Status: Under construction

In Austin, the approach is evolving.

The design or style of a building “is not something that the city really has its regulatory teeth into — or not to a great extent,” said Jim Robertson, manager of the Urban Design Division of the city’s Planning and Zoning Department.

However, as projects wind their way through the approval process at City Hall, developers do receive feedback from city planners and the Design Commission and the Downtown Commission, whose members can make suggestions based on the city’s urban design guidelines. Those recommendations cover everything from the physical makeup and facades of the buildings to the related pedestrian areas, including sidewalks, public plazas and open space.

Austin Proper
Project type: Hotel/condos
Address: 202 Nueces St.
Stories: 32
Status: Under construction

“In the early days of doing high-rises, or any buildings downtown, there wasn’t a whole lot of interest from the design community, or a whole lot of opportunity for input,” said Richard Suttle Jr., an attorney for many downtown developers. “Nowadays, depending on what you’re doing, you’re probably going to get a ride through one of our various boards and commissions, and lots of people giving their opinion. Frankly, it’s a good process because fresh eyes looking at a project often have suggestions that make it better for all of us.”

Dealey, who has served on the city’s Planning Commission and Downtown Commission, said her greatest interest — and that of the city — is in how the building relates to the street.

“You can have a really impressive skyline with a dismal on-the-ground experience, or a fabulous one with a fabulous on-the-street experience.”

Waller Park Place
Project type: Mixed-use
Address: Cesar Chavez and Red River streets
Stories: 50+
Status: Planned

She said some tall buildings have been successful at the pedestrian level, while others have missed the mark.

“We get it some of the time, but we don’t get it all the time,” Dealey said. “I wish we had a better way of making sure the vision we have when we give a project zoning is what is achieved. I think we have a lot of missed opportunities.”

In general, Dealey said, Austin has a “good mix” of buildings with interesting shapes.

Doug Manchester, president of the company developing the Fairmont Austin hotel downtown, said Austin’s skyline is shaping up to be one of the most distinctive.

“It’s fascinating how our skyline has grown within the past 10 years and will continue to grow in the next 10 years to include many other unique and iconic towers — all of which I’m convinced will elevate Austin as a top 10 most admired metropolitan skyline,” Manchester said.

Downtown's value
The total 2015 market value of all the property in Austin’s downtown is $9,080,425,037, according to the Travis Central Appraisal District.

Of that amount, $3,341,544,971 has been built since 2000.

The figures are testament to the strength of the successive building booms that have transpired since 2000, despite two downturns during that time, Travis Chief Appraiser Marya Crigler said.

Austin's skyline lagging?
Trevor Boddy, a Vancouver, British Columbia, architecture critic, says he sees little originality in the designs of most of Austin’s newly built and planned skyscrapers. Boddy cites some of the following projects as examples of more original high-rise designs:

Related coverage:
The surprising backstory of Austin’s goal for 25,000 downtown residents

Closing photo by Jay Janner/2014 American-Statesman
Building renderings courtesy of Neezo Renders, Handel Architects, Gensler Austin, IBI Group, Gromatzky Dupree & Associates, Solomon Cordwell Buenz, HKS Architects and Duda Paine Architects