Pedestrian mall, new buildings planned for area north of Capitol

A long-envisioned pedestrian mall — along with a pair of new office buildings — is being planned for the area immediately north of the Capitol.

Back in the 1940 and 1950s, planners in state government imagined a tree-lined civic space among state office buildings that frame Congress Avenue in the blocks north of the center of state government. Now, officials with the Texas Facilities Commission are incorporating the decades-old vision in a master plan for the Capitol complex that runs generally from Trinity to Lavaca streets and from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to 10th Street.

The first of three phases of the concept is slated to include three blocks of a walkable mall and two new state office buildings — along with nearly 4,500 new and much-needed parking spaces in five subterranean levels — to be completed by 2020 at a cost of $580 million.

State Sen. Kevin Eltife, a retiring Republican from Tyler, has worked on plans for the Capitol complex for the past four legislative sessions. In 2013, then-Gov. Rick Perry vetoed a concept that included two new office buildings because he wanted a full master plan to be created first.

Taking Perry’s cue, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick dispatched Eltife before this year’s session to make sure the broad vision was put onto paper. And by the session’s end, a master plan was underway, and the Legislature had approved money for the first of three phases that included the pedestrian mall and the two new buildings.

“It’s an expansion of the Capitol complex that is long overdue,” Eltife told the American-Statesman.

One of the proposed buildings would go up on a parking lot across the street from the Bullock Texas State History Museum on the east side of Congress Avenue, and the other would be built closer to the Capitol, between West 15th and West 16th Streets.

The buildings would create about 1 million square feet of new office space in the Capitol complex and would drastically decrease the state’s annual lease payments on about 1.2 million square feet of leased office space in the downtown area. The new buildings will be capable of holding 3,600 employees, and, upon completion in 2020, the state would be able to retire up to 18 leases totaling $19.9 million annually, said Peter Maass, deputy executive director of the facilities commission.

Eltife added that the construction will be financed by non-voter approved bonds, and the money the state saves on rent will be redirected to cover the debt service.

Like home ownership, the state will be creating equity in the buildings and improvements, and it will own the new structures outright without any bond indebtedness after 25 years, Eltife said.

“We want to continue to create and build something that matches the incredible Capitol complex we already have,” he said.

The first phase still needs to be approved by officials with the General Land Office, the Texas Preservation Board and the Texas Facilities Commission.

Molly Alexander, associate director of the Downtown Austin Alliance, said she appreciates the vision for the area north of the Capitol.

Alexander and members of the alliance, a partnership of downtown property owners, individuals and businesses dedicated to maintaining the vitality of downtown, have been encouraged that state planners put so much thought into connecting the Capitol grounds with the rest of the city, including Waller Creek, the University of Texas’ new Dell Medical School and the UT campus.

“I was really impressed. I think it was extremely aspirational,” said Alexander, who added that she knew of no opposition to the Capitol plan. “I believe this is legacy building.”

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said that the state has an opportunity to make the area around the Capitol “as inviting as the statehouse itself.”

Officials expect final approval in March, and they hope to break ground in 2017.

The second phase, which would be several years away, could include two more buildings and even more space on the proposed mall, and the final phase could involve even more office buildings and additional green space.

Decisions on the latter phases will be made later.

“The master plan lays out a vision for transforming state properties in a way that will make all Texans proud while also supporting the functions of state government in a cost-effective manner,” Watson said.

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