At first glance, this upcoming Austin high-rise hotel by Nelsen Partners has all the trappings of its hyper-developed, post-contextual tower contemporaries. Over the last half-decade, a collection of nondescript hotel monoliths has cropped up across downtown Austin at a startling rate, and the announcement of yet another has Austinites bracing themselves for more of the same. But take a closer look at The Avenue – Hyatt Centric Hotel, and you will see a building that is, in fact, deeply rooted in its time and place. Far from being just a striking facade or another gleaming cube, this development is actually a preservation project with a progressive urbanist heart. By means of a single tower, Nelsen Partners resolves a typical Austin dichotomy: its desire to grow and modernize, while at the same time protecting its … weirdness, if you will.
As a new addition to Austin’s rapidly developing skyline, The Avenue will distinguish itself from the surrounding shiny rectangles and postmodern relics through the clever implementation of a stereotomic facade and a striking set of proportions. The building frontage along Congress Avenue — the primary axis of downtown Austin — is just over 43 feet wide, setting off a sliver of a building that tops out at 32 stories. The hotel is organized vertically according to a traditional base-mid-top scheme. A Capitol view corridor and dominance zone setback at 90-feet-high dictates The Avenue’s lower-level massing, and the pedestrian experience is enhanced at the first four levels, which comprise an askew cube of sleek vertical mullions, a curtain of glazing that peels back from the corner to create and foster an active public space. In the words of Carson Nelsen, the project’s head designer, this glass box is a secondary piece of architecture, inserted beneath the lifted primary expression of the tower. “It gives the building its street identity and contextual scale,” he says. The lightness of this cut-out base matches the proportions of the neighboring Stateside at the Paramount, and its shifted orientation reveals the theater’s art deco parapets and marquee, which have been fairly obscured by the clunky awnings of the building currently located on the site. Overhead, the hotel’s north facade has ribbons of glazing and spandrel glass, while its other three sides are a testament to the sun: articulated walls of punched window openings recessed in bright white metal paneling — a rare emphasis amid Austin’s ever-expanding collection of sleek, modern towers.
Clearly, The Avenue is designed to preserve the neighboring Paramount and Stateside theaters (built in 1915 and 1932, respectively). Brad Nelsen, AIA, Nelsen Partners’ president, owned the property at the point of the project’s conception, and he secured the air rights from both historic Austin theater buildings, submitting all three properties under a unified development agreement and site development permit, forever tying them to one another. By combining the floor-area ratios (FARs) of the three sites, Nelsen not only benefitted by more than tripling his available building height beyond the usual 8:1 FAR maximum of Austin’s Central Business District (CBD); he also all but guaranteed that the diminutive theaters, now locked at their current heights and massing, would be protected from the piqued interests of developers in the future. In addition to this, Nelsen created a 99-year lease agreement with the theaters for their offices and support functions to occupy the entire fourth floor of the new building at an honorary rate of $1/year, with the Stateside Theatre also occupying the entire basement level. This additional real estate allows each theater the flexibility to proceed with much-needed renovation and restoration projects of their own in the coming years.
Aside from the preservation efforts of its designers, The Avenue is also a compelling case study in progressive urbanism for downtown Austin developments. Since we live in Central Texas and most developers subscribe to so-called “market-driven” parking minimums, it is likely that the first thing you will hear about this new building is that it has zero onsite parking. The main reason for this is, of course, the site’s narrow dimensions, which make any efficient parking layout nearly impossible.
After more than a year of conducting unsuccessful feasibility studies of this site for more traditional hoteliers, Nelsen worked alongside the historic neighboring theaters and purchased the property, making himself the client. When Nelsen Partners became the architect-as-developer of this project, their original design was an apartment building with some office space and retail/restaurant below. Nelsen imagined this building as an “affordable alternative to the otherwise high cost of a CBD apartment” for the individual or family who wanted to live downtown and did not want to own a car. But when Hyatt purchased the property and all of its new entitlements, they kept the building form and program, asking only that Nelsen Partners convert the efficiency apartments and office floors into hotel rooms. These hoteliers already knew that their Hyatt Centric Hotel model would work well here, because it could rely on Austin’s revitalized downtown culture to provide most of the amenities to the hotel guests. The central location of The Avenue, sited in the heart of Austin’s historic yet frenetic downtown district, will be its amenity.
Christy Taylor, AIA, is a project architect at Chioco Design in Austin.