Two years ago, the Texas Facilities Commission proposed consolidating thousands of state employees in a suburban "town center" east of Austin. The goal was threefold: (1) the state would cut its lease expenses by consolidating employees from offices scattered around town in state-owned facilities; (2) the state workers would serve as the kernel for a new "town center" by SH 130, prodding other development in Austin's desired development zone; and (3) the move would put lots of valuable land in downtown Austin.
I thought this was a horrible idea, though:
As the Commission correctly notes, the area surrounding the Capitol is cluttered with low-rise state office buildings and parking garages; as an urban environment, it's a wasteland. The plan also would put valuable downtown Austin properties on the tax rolls for the city, county and school district.
But emptying thousands of employees out of downtown Austin is no solution. A vibrant downtown needs lots of people. Quality buildings matter, of course, but they are useless if they are empty. And while easing congestion is laudable, turning a large chunk of downtown into a ghost town is too steep a price to pay. Indeed, some congestion is healthy; roads are lightly traveled when no one wants to go where they lead.
The Commission has a legitimate interest in reducing the rent it pays for downtown office space. Putting valuable state property back on the tax rolls would be great for the city, county and schools. Anyone who cares about the urban environment would like to see us redevelop the clunky office buildings and street-killing garages surrounding the Capitol. But Austin simply does not have enough demand for downtown office space to replace thousands of government employees.
I'm delighted then that the Commission's staff has done an about-face and is now proposing to redevelop the state capitol complex -- essentially, doubling down on downtown Austin:
A state commission is re-imagining the future of state government's physical presence in the heart of Austin a concept that would triple the amount of space at the Capitol complex, including joint development with private interests where there are parking lots or garages now.
The proposal, being crafted by the Texas Facilities Commission staff under the direction of new Executive Director Terry Keel, goes well beyond moving state employees from 2 million square feet of leased space across Austin to new state-owned buildings near the Capitol.
The concept, carried out over several decades, would remake downtown, potentially adding 7 million square feet of space, or the equivalent of 13 Frost Bank towers.
Of that, 1 million square feet would be in three new state office buildings. The proposal envisions the rest as joint development of underused state land with private interests.
The planners anticipate that the undertaking would comply with City of Austin development rules and respect the so-called Capitol view corridors. The plan is "parking neutral" — replacing lost spaces with underground parking — but anticipates that the Capitol complex eventually would be served by light rail and urban rail.
We are talking about a massive chunk of downtown land. The state owns almost all of the roughly 20 city blocks sandwiched between the Capitol and the University of Texas and another eight blocks flanking the Capitol. It's hard to convey the bleakness of the development there now -- it's all parking lots, parking garages and modernist bunkers set back from the street. As this survey prepared by Jana McCann and Jim Adams, the consultants developing the Downtown Austin Plan, shows, most of these 20 blocks are devoted to low-value uses like parking lots or parking garages:
I would love to see this wasteland transformed into a vibrant urban district within my lifetime. There actually were a fair number of pedestrians out when I took these photos, despite the bleak environment and complete absence of ground-floor uses. The reason is that the area already houses thousands of state employees and draws who knows how many visitors each day. It's already got the population base that a good urban neighborhood needs, in other words. It just needs the right buildings.