- By Shonda Novak American-Statesman Staff
This week, some Austinites might have noticed a change on the downtown skyline.
Construction has progressed to the point that the Independent — nicknamed the “Jenga tower” — has started taking on elements of its defining look as the 58-story condominium project rises toward its place as the city’s tallest building and the tallest residential building west of the Mississippi.
After breaking ground in January 2016, the tower’s distinctive cantilevered design is now taking shape. The real estate firm that is marketing its 370 luxury units said it is seeing a spike in presales as the building’s physical presence grows on the skyline. The luxury units currently range in price from about $650,000 to $3.5 million.
The Independent, valued at more than $370 million, has been dubbed the “Jenga tower” by some locals for its signature look — a cubed, stacked design by Rhode:Partners, an Austin-based architecture firm.
“It’s a milestone for us,” said Kevin Burns, a real estate broker who owns Urbanspace Real Estate + Interiors, which is marketing the units. “I think it’s providing some architectural significance to our skyline.”
Perry Lorenz, one of the project’s developers, said the tower’s design “will very likely help define the Austin skyline for some time.”
“I hope it will be emblematic of what downtown residential density accomplishes: 370 households living on a small footprint, which equates to dozens of blocks of a conventional residential neighborhood, yet residents will not be watering lawns nor getting into their cars routinely, while generating millions of dollars in ad valorem tax dollars to pay for schools, city services and infrastructure all over the city,” Lorenz said.
In addition to the condos, the building will have up to 13,000 square feet of ground-floor restaurant and retail space, which is being marketed by Austin-based Endeavor Real Estate Group.
Brett Rhode, director of Rhode:Partners, said he and his team can see the tower rising from their offices downtown. The first offset, or cantilever, is now visible on the ninth-floor swimming pool deck, Rhode said.
“When we reach the 34th story in a few weeks, there will be another major shift where there are amenities with some fantastic views,” Rhode said.
Rhode said he doesn’t mind the “Jenga” nickname — “even though, believe it or not, I was not familiar with the game. But we did have a lot of fun designing the building,” he wrote in an email.
To date, 63 percent of its units — 233 — are under contract, Burns said. Local real estate agents say that’s more than the 190 or so units that prospective buyers have reserved in the three other luxury downtown condo projects combined that are now under construction. Those are Fifth & West,70 Rainey and the Austin Proper Hotel and Residences.
The development team consists of Austin-based Constructive Ventures, whose principals are Lorenz and Larry Warshaw; Austin-based Aspen Heights; and Los Angeles-based CIM Group.
Constructive Ventures laid the groundwork for the project, teeing it up for construction to launch. Constructive Ventures has since handed off the project to Aspen Heights, which will manage the construction until the project opens in late 2018. Ryan Fetgatter, vice president of development for Aspen Heights, said the project is at roughly the halfway point in the construction process.
In the early 2000s, when the first wave of Austin’s high-rise residential building boom started downtown, some observers questioned the depth of demand for the upscale units coming to market.
Over time, skeptics’ doubts have proved largely unfounded, experts say.
“The downtown condo market continues to exceed expectations, particularly given the high prices and the number of projects vying for buyers,” said Charles Heimsath, a local real estate expert. “For many buyers, being in the heart of downtown is critical to support their desire to live, work and play in the most walkable and interesting neighborhood in the city.”
Although all four luxury condo projects now under construction are reporting healthy sales, “the Independent is the clear leader in the number of contracts signed and percentage sold,” Heimsath said.
“The other three projects offer a more boutique experience, and in the case of Austin Proper, affiliation with a high-end hotel,” Heimsath noted.
Burns said residential demand is growing in the central business district as the quality of downtown living improves.
“Every time a new building opens, more ground-floor retail comes, and that equates to more amenities, services and restaurants. So the quality of life just keeps on getting better,” said Burns, who will be buying a four-bedroom unit in the Independent.
Echoing Burns, Lorenz said the market for downtown housing remains strong, “with success breeding success.”
“Well-located projects will continue to do well with the ‘stay out of your car’ lifestyle gaining appeal,” Lorenz said. “Residential density generates services and retail, which in turn generates more residential. This critical mass is what downtown advocates have long hoped for. I think we are there.”
Toni Inglis, a downtown resident who lives near the Independent site, said that while the project “is all cool and everything,” she’s concerned it will add to already existing traffic congestion along West Avenue and West Fifth Street.
“I’m all for urban density, but you have to be able to get around,” Inglis said. “It’s a fantasy to think that ride-sharing and walking and cycling are going to alleviate the problem. You cannot get a Texan out of his or her car. Period.”
But at the Independent’s groundbreaking, Mayor Steve Adler said that “adding housing downtown where residents are more likely to walk or bike to work” is a plus.
“By helping us address affordability and mobility,” Adler said, “this building is a very big win-win for Austin.”