There has been a lot of hand wringing the last couple of years about the collapse of the commercial credit market. Many of us in Austin have worried that the collapse will cripple badly needed redevelopment downtown for years to come.
It turns out that those worries are unfounded. The first green shoots are shooting. Just last week, the owners of a just-demolished Warehouse District building installed a brand spanking new surface parking lot at 5th and Colorado:
It's conveniently located in the very heart of the Warehouse District. The parking lot will save patrons of the restaurants and bars along 4th and 5th a trudge from one of the many surface parking lots a a full block or two away. Better, it breaks up the monotonous row of restaurants and offices stretching from Congress to Lavaca, provides some badly needed open space, and gives passersby an unobstructed view of the towers on 2nd street -- a view that they could enjoy before only by standing at the corner of the block.
Sarcasm doesn't play well, I know, but leveling a building for a parking lot in the middle of the Warehouse District deserves contempt.
The owners are planning an 18-20 story hotel at the site. (Jude Galligan has the renderings.) I think that's a great spot for a well-designed hotel. It would further enliven one of downtown's best streets. I won't miss the vanilla two-story building and don't think it deserved preservation. This will be a net gain for the District . . . if the owners follow through.
And that's the catch. In this market -- a wretched credit market and equally wretched travel (and hence hotel) market -- any proposed development is speculative. Anyone can draw up nice renderings; finding the money to erect that first crane is the hard part. It might be years before we see anything there. The shiny concrete parking lot tells us the owners think so too.
I have no objection to property owners downtown speculating in real estate by deferring the redevelopment of their property. "Banking" property is a benign practice: it smooths out property prices and establishes a reserve of buildable lots to meet future demand.
What I object to is this form of land-banking. Retaining a low-rise building and its tenants keeps a street healthy; demolishing it for a surface parking lot wounds the streetscape and hurts surrounding property values. Those are bona fide negative externalities.
Putting a surface parking lot in this spot displays the kind of contempt for downtown that fuels the historic preservation movement. Given a choice between an ugly surface parking lot and preserving a nondescript low-rise in perpetuity, most will take the building. Even if a denser, taller building is a better use of the property.
Maybe "contempt" is too harsh. I assume the owners know their business and this was a rational business decision. It's pointless to fault someone for acting in his own self-interest. The city can change the incentives, though. It should have done so a long time ago. Instead, it is preoccupied with devising new ways to burden buildings that might actually get built.