Reader Don Ugent has a question. More precisely, Peggy, his wife, has a question. Being a helpful husband, Don decided to do the research to find an answer for his wife’s question.
In this case, research meant emailing the question to me in my vaunted role as the CEO/CFO, president and sole staffer at a little something I like to call “What Is It?”
Ugent’s request came with a photo of a graffiti-festooned building, which narrows it down to a zillion local buildings.
“My wife frequently walks by this building,” he wrote. “It’s across from the downtown railroad station on Baylor. North side of the tracks. Looks like some type of rail building. Must have an interesting history. Can you help?”
History shows that sometimes I can.
But first, as is my wont, I inquired about the inquirer’s best guess, theory or surmise about the subject of the inquiry. So, as they say on the game shows, let’s meet today’s contestant. Ugent has lived in Austin since 2005, when he and Peggy moved here from a West Coast state I won’t mention for fear that it might prejudice some readers against him. (Hint: It’s not Oregon or Washington.)
Prior to retiring, he was in the wealth management business. Wouldn’t it be cool to have enough wealth that you needed someone to manage it? I doubt that wealth management professionals get involved in the kind of financial decisions most of us face, like how to maximize our Bed, Bath & Beyond coupons.
But I digress. Peggy Ugent is a retired CPA. The Ugents live in Clarksville and take frequent downtown walks, which brings us back to the Baylor Street building in question.
“It looks like it had something to do with the railroad, considering its proximity to the tracks and station,” Don Ugent theorized. “The large door is also higher than usual, which leads me to believe train cars went inside to be serviced, perhaps, or unloaded.”
Makes sense, right? Yes, but in life, as in wealth management, making sense and being right can be two different things.
What the Ugents are looking at on their walks is a building that’s part of the Tips Iron and Steel complex in that area just west of downtown. It’s quite a story with quite a history, dating back to 1899. Tips Iron and Steel is in the structural steel business, providing products for building projects and other uses.
As you can imagine as you watch condo tower after condo tower going up in the downtownish area, the Tips land is coveted by folks who think they can make money building even more high-dollar condos (probably for folks who need somebody in the wealth management business).
Back in 2003, my colleague Shonda Novak, who writes about this kind of thing for our newspaper, reported: “A vision is taking shape that could transform a 104-year-old industrial site in Old West Austin into an enclave of shops, residences and restaurants — and possibly even a hotel.”
That hasn’t happened yet. I’m told by someone with a reason to know that, despite constant and persistent interest in the property, nothing new is currently envisioned for the 5.3-acre site. Travis Central Appraisal District records shows Tips Iron & Steel owns properties with a total valuation of $16.3 million. The current annual property taxes top $361,000.
The building Ugent asked about is not currently used, but other parts of the facility are. Steve Wimberly, president of Tips Iron & Steel had no comment about anything regarding his business or its future other than to say it’s a going concern with no current plans to go anywhere.
When the buzz about development perked up in 2003, Wimberly said, “We’re exploring possibilities. That’s all we’re doing.”
Quick history of Tips Iron & Steel: It was co-founded in 1899 by Walter Tips, a state senator from 1893 through 1896. The company had a foundry operation at the site until the 1950s. Its products over the years have include transmission parts for World War II tanks, as well as steel frameworks for local buildings such as the Driskill Hotel and Travis County Courthouse.
Speculation about redevelopment of the Tips property isn’t new. Lots of people have had lots of ideas about it. Back in 1985, then-Texas Tech University student Catherine Nored Schaffer wrote a 234-page thesis with some ambitious ideas. It was called “Adaptive reuse project of the Tips Iron and Steel building for a cultural center.”
“The facility will be a cultural mall, a ‘creative corner,’ or ‘artists’ nook, and will include art galleries, specialty shops, restaurants, areas for entertainment, offices for related professionals, and a small museum,” she wrote. “The intent of the cultural mall is to fulfill Austin’s growing need for such facilities caused by a high-quality population growth combined with the large number of talented persons in the area. The center will provide outlets for the artists in the area, and provide unique shopping and entertainment for Austin.”
This idea, of course, was purely academic. Nothing much has changed at the site in many a-year.
The unused building Ugent asked about is covered with colorful graffiti, serving as a striking sight for arriving Amtrak passengers to encounter.
I guess your thoughts about whether it’s a good sight or a bad sight depends on whether you classify graffiti as high art or low crime.