Austin, Now What?

On a recent trip, our columnist found a real gap between the city’s cultural values and its built environment.

A few months ago I wrote a column advancing the notion that American cities are rediscov­ering the importance of architectural and civic beauty. The next thing you know, I was invited to Austin to give a talk at the University of Texas called “The City Beautiful All Over Again.” Life is good. One small problem: as my host drove me into town from the airport, it dawned on me that Austin isn’t a beautiful city. Not in the way that I meant. It’s not a showcase of the best 21st-century architecture and urban design. The cityscape is still dominated by the state capitol, an 1888 model of Beaux Arts splendor. The red-granite Renaissance Revival temple, topped with a 310-foot-tall dome, serves as the city’s official wayfinding device, protected by view corridors. It’s a spectacular object. But overall, the city is the antithesis of my thesis.

Since my last swing through Austin, nearly a decade ago, a collection of high-rise condos has cropped up along the stretch of the Color-ado River that runs through the heart of the city. Intended to inject some actual residents into the city center and built at odd intervals, those towers are not particularly distinguished (although the new W Hotel–condo complex, by Andersson-Wise, with its handsome matte-black facade, is easily the best of the bunch).

But the building that truly upended my thesis both impinged on the primacy of the capitol dome and hogged the skyline. Frost Bank, a 33-story green-glass tower built in 2004 and topped with a sort of origami flower, was designed by Duda/Paine Architects, of Durham, North Carolina, and conceived to revitalize downtown in the wake of the first dot-com bust and 9/11. But it looks like a delayed echo of the post-modern moment and a study in the ways that attempted architectural beauty can go wrong.

I wound up wandering around Austin trying to reconcile the city in which I found myself with the lecture I planned to give. I did find beauty in Austin—the running trail along the river is a glorious piece of urban infrastructure—but decided that most of what the city brings to the table is its native scrappiness. Austin is an endearing mess. Its slacker reputation has made it a magnet for musicians, techies, film-makers, and artisanal-cocktail mixers. (In Austin, a bartender poured me a watermelon martini topped with St. Germain–flavored foam. Beautiful! ) Everyone I met traveled by bicycle at least some of the time. Daimler chose Austin for the first U.S. test of its high-tech Car2go vehicle-sharing system. Music percolates continuously from friendly outdoor bars. But unlike, say, Portland, Oregon, where bike lanes and light rail abound, here there is a conspicuous mismatch between the perceived values of the place and the physical environment. This is Texas, after all.

I took a walk down West 6th Street to the 80,000-square-foot Whole Foods flagship, a few short blocks from my hotel. Once there I had trouble finding the entrance. A ceremonial lobby facing the sidewalk led to the corporate offices. Shoppers usually arrive by car and enter from the parking lot or garage. One night, I watched a steady stream of bicyclists—some equipped with safety lights and helmets, but most not—pedal beside the fast-moving traffic on South Congress, the city’s hipster main drag. No bike lane. The situation was crazy. There is a new light-rail system, a single line that begins downtown and ends at a northern suburb called Leander. It doesn’t go to the airport. It doesn’t run at night or on the weekends. It’s described as a “starter line.” Clearly, the city isn’t quite what it aspires to be.

Eventually, I made my way to city hall, which I had hoped would be the 21st-century counterpoint to the state capitol, topped not with the Goddess of Liberty but with an array of photovoltaics. Occupying a prominent waterfront site, this 2004 building tries incredibly hard to do everything right: it’s LEED Gold certified, incorporates local and recycled materials, counts its outdoor plaza as a green roof for the parking garage, and generates some of its own electricity. The jagged form was a collaboration between the noted Southwestern architect Antoine Predock and Cotera, Kolar, Negrete & Reed, an Austin firm. The building was supposed to resemble a Texas Hill Country rock formation. But the jutting volumes recalled the deconstructivist movement of the late 1980s. Instead of providing an enlightened retort to the hubris of the big dome, it is more like a corollary to the Frost Bank Tower. That building was all dumb vanity. City hall, on the other hand, thinks way too much.

While at city hall, I picked up a newsprint handout, “Which Way, Austin? Help Plan the City’s Future,” a survey asking for public input on the city’s first comprehensive plan since the 1970s. Based on past growth patterns, the plan assumes that the city’s population will almost double in the next 30 years; today’s city of 786,000 will be more like 1.5 million come 2039. At that point, the mess will be far less endearing. The plan was not about an aesthetic, or even an urban-design strategy, but about finding a pattern of growth that would sync with the city’s values. Later, Mark Walters, one of the city’s planners, told me the questionnaire represented the middle stage of a three-part process. The values expressed in it were harvested from interviews conducted in the first phase by Wallace, Roberts & Todd. In phase three, an outline drafted by WRT will be fleshed out with community input early next year.

I was impressed by the way “Which Way, Austin?” distilled complex concepts like creativity and livability, and goals such as improved transit and more walkable neighborhoods, into the language of cartography. Possible future scenarios were illustrated by four maps. Map A depicted a future in which sprawl continues and there are few urban-style “live-work-play” centers. Map D showed new mixed-use development concentrated along existing transportation corridors. Respondents were asked to vote for a scenario map and then answer a handful of questions about their priorities: How important is it “to preserve Austin’s culture, character of historic buildings and neighborhoods”? Or “to reduce Austin’s carbon footprint”?

“This is a public process, and we’re letting the public tell us which way we want to go,” Walters says. “We’re a very democratic city, with a little d. The public process is sometimes more important than the end result.” The selection of the survey questions, however, pretty much telegraphed the tenor of the plan that will result. Unless of course, I said to him, everyone votes for sprawl. “Well, they haven’t told us that thus far,” Walters said, a month before the deadline for completing the surveys. “I think the participants, by and large, realize where we’re at. They live here in Austin. They know that something needs to change.”

Eventually I realized that the title of the questionnaire—“Which Way, Austin?”—implied a lack of direction. Or rather, it suggested that the act of providing direction would be undemocratic, disloyal to the local civic culture. I also realized that what I was seeing was an aversion to authority in built form—not typically the kind of environment in which civic beauty thrives. Not that I expect weird-ass Austin to morph into anal Portland. But if the city is going to grow as much as the planning department expects, it will need to know exactly which way it’s going, and it’s going to have to implement a vision. And that may not be a democratic, small d, undertaking.

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