A proposal from Austin City Council Member Ora Houston could dramatically affect the redevelopment of East Austin by imposing new height restrictions on future projects to protect certain views of the state Capitol.
Houston’s proposal for five new Capitol view corridors comes as developers increasingly eye East Austin for high-rise development, fueling fears about further change in this once-working class part of town.
“This whole conversation, this whole wanting to have some visual history of the relationship between black East Austin and the Capitol started back in 2015,” said Houston, who was inspired by the fight over the once-proposed One Two East development, which would have built a pair of apartment towers on the east side of Interstate I-35 at 12th Street. Those towers, she said, would have been a “vertical barrier, just like some people see I-35 as a horizontal barrier.”
“People in different parts of East Austin need the same kind of views of our Capitol as other people have,” she added.
Under Houston’s plan, the new view corridors would slice outward from the Capitol, radiating toward Rosewood Park and onward to Thompson Street; Lott Park; the intersection of Juniper and Navasota streets; a Texas State Cemetery hillside; and the Jackson Moody Building at Huston-Tillotson University.
The resolution, which is scheduled for a vote Thursday, wouldn’t be the final say in the matter. If adopted, it would instruct the city staffers to return with an ordinance to create the corridors, which would then be subjected to an additional series of votes. Her bid is co-sponsored by Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Leslie Pool, Kathie Tovo and Alison Alter.
However, Houston’s proposal has already drawn criticism from officials at the county’s hospital district as well as some affordable housing advocates and developers.
Officials at Central Health warned that one of the proposed view corridors would impede their plans to redevelop the site of the University Medical Center Brackenridge at 15th and Red River streets. The redevelopment of that property, prompted by the Seton Healthcare Family moving its hospital operations to the new Dell Seton Medical Center at the University of Texas, is expected to provide revenue for Central Health’s indigent health care services.
“We have not heard anything about this from the city,” said Clarke Heidrick, a Central Health board member who chairs the committee overseeing the proposed redevelopment project. He said the authority’s initial analysis of Houston’s proposal would limit the height on three of the six Brackenridge blocks.
A master plan approved by the Central Health board last year envisions a high-density, mixed-use project with buildings ranging from 35 to 40 stories.
“Our immediate reaction is one of deep concern that the proposed corridors would have serious implications with respect to the redevelopment of the Brackenridge campus and, ultimately, our ability to generate income that pays for health care for low income patients,” Heidrick said.
Meanwhile, developers said the new restrictions could deprive the city of potentially significant tax revenue.
“Imposing any view corridor has huge economic implications,” said developer Perry Lorenz, a former chairman of the Downtown Commission, which has studied the view corridors. He is on the team building The Independent, the 58-story residential tower rising next to the Seaholm site downtown.
“The public view corridors already existing under city and state law require the city to forgo hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars of ad valorem tax dollars because of the prohibition of taxable development in the most valuable areas of downtown,” Lorenz added in his emailed statement.
View corridors date back to the 1980s. As high-rise buildings began to sprout downtown, the City Council and state Legislature signed off laws that would preserve views of the Capitol.
A 2005 city map shows there are at least 35, sometimes overlapping, protected sightlines of the Capitol around the city. Nine of those corridors extend east of Interstate 35, though only six appear to extend for more than a block east of the freeway.
“Ever since I’ve been on the council, one my mantras has been the issue of equity,” Houston said. “So many times, things that occur west of I-35 don’t seem to make it east of I-35.”