30-story ‘car-free’ apartment tower planned on Congress Avenue

A vacant retail space on Congress Avenue in downtown Austin could be transformed into a 30-story tower with 135 luxury apartments, office space, a restaurant and a bar. But the proposed project is also notable for what it won’t have: any space for cars.

The project — called The Avenue — won’t include a parking garage or any space for auto parking. It is being billed by its developers as the first “truly car-free luxury development in downtown Austin,” designed to encourage biking, walking, ride-sharing and public transportation.

Congress Development Partners Ltd. is planning the project for Congress and Eighth Street, next to the Paramount and State theaters. The group is led by Brad Nelsen, an Austin architect. His partners are Daniel “Buzz” Gosnell, Tom Howes and Nelsen’s son, Austin Nelsen.

“This is the first true urban residential tower in Austin,” Brad Nelsen said. “This is built for people who work and live 24 hours a day downtown,” and who walk, bicycle, or use ride-hailing services to go to the grocery store or other trips.

Nelsen said the “carless” residential concept has worked in other places, including Seattle, Portland, New York and Denver, and said he believes it will work in Austin.

Nelsen said developers hope to break ground by May 1, 2017. The project is expected to take two years to build. Nelson said his team is still working to secure financing for the project, which he estimates will cost $55 million to $60 million.

The site is currently home to a one-story building that has sat empty for years. Austin architect Sinclair Black planned a condo project on the site more than a decade ago, but that development never happened. Congress Development Partners bought the property in February, Brad Nelsen said.

The planned high-rise would have apartments ranging from 420 square feet to 970 square feet with efficient designs to allow people to live comfortably in a smaller footprint, Brad Nelsen said.

With their smaller size, units will have rents that are about 15 percent lower than the going rate downtown, where a one-bedroom can range from $2,100 a month to $2,300 a month, the developers said.

The project would include a restaurant, as well as a cocktail lounge and music venue in the basement.

The nonprofit Austin Theatre Alliance owns and operates the Paramount and State theaters. Brad Nelsen, who is on the board of the theater nonprofit, said developers will provide the alliance with administrative space, dressing rooms, classrooms and other support facilities in the new building.

Jim Ritts, CEO and director of the Austin Theatre Alliance, said that he and Brad Nelsen “have shared a vision of making the 700 block of Congress Avenue one of the most important and vibrant cultural hubs in downtown Austin.”

Ritts said the proposed development would create a “thriving, active and stylish living space on this critical corner of downtown” and other significant benefits for the theater alliance.

Richard Suttle Jr., an Austin attorney representing the developers in the city review process, said the demographic the project is targeting — people who live and work downtown — is on the rise.

“They move into this project knowing that there won’t be a place for a car,” Suttle said. “There are a lot of people living downtown now that don’t have a car. The downtown workforce is getting younger, and the younger generation is moving away from having to have a car. There is a (bike rental) facility adjacent to this site, and it will probably expand.”

Brad Nelsen said developers aren’t seeking any zoning changes, density bonuses or incentives from the city.

The Austin City Council previously eliminated parking requirements for new downtown projects, said Jerry Rusthoven in the city’s Planning and Zoning Department.

“Our transit system is more robust than it has been in the past, and there are more options today for on-demand transit such as Car2Go, Uber and Lyft and B-Cycle,” Rusthoven said.

Robert Spillar, the city’s transportation director, said downtown, and specifically the Eighth and Congress area, “are at the epicenter of accessibility within Austin,” so building a new project without parking “is not that unreasonable, given the location and access to (nearby) travel options.”

Jim Lewin, who lives with his wife in downtown Austin, said they haven’t owned a car since the 1990s.

“This was easy when we lived in New York City, since public transportation is so good there, but we weren’t sure we’d be able to swing it when we moved to Austin five years ago,” said Lewin, founder and CEO of FreqSho, a music app. “Turns out, it’s totally doable. …We can walk and bike to most places, including car rental locations when we want to get away for the weekend. For everything else, we use Car2Go and ride sharing options like Uber and Lyft.”

Nelsen said he hired Charles Heimsath, an Austin-based real estate consultant, to conduct a market analysis for the proposed project.

“We have done quite a lot of research into micro-unit apartments and I think the time is ripe for this product type,” Heimsath said. “While the cost of renting downtown has increased, the demand for rental units has never been stronger. A project that delivers a high quality living space at a more affordable price is certain attract young professional renters, even if it does not offer parking.”

Heimsath said his research found that about 12.3 percent of tenants that were offered parking in the garage of their downtown apartment tower declined to rent the offered space.

“These renters either don’t own a car, or they park it at work or at another location,” Heimsath said. “Downtown is a truly walkable environment, which means that getting around on foot, by bicycle, Pedicab or Uber is the preferred means of travel for many people.”

This article was updated with comments from Charles Heimsath and Jim Lewin.

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