Tuesday, April 7, 2009

It's the little things that count

I live in Austin, Texas, and since moving here three years ago from Philly, I have truly been impressed by the effort the City has made to make downtown a vibrant pedestrian friendly residential neighborhood, with great retail, restaurants, and some remarkably interesting design. Granted, real estate/rental prices, the type of retail (Design Within Reach my ass), and expensive restaurants generally limit this cosmopolitan community to the affluent. Nevertheless, it's a start, and that's commendable.

But every now and then, the City and the developer community are a few paces behind the curve when it comes to good design and aesthetics, and it's the little things that count. For example, check out the development at 5th and Lamar, just north of Townlake. This development is on downtown's western fringe, catercorner to Whole Foods Market's world headquarters and flagship supermarket, in the middle of several large condo projects, on a very busy intersection. Bottom line, it's a great location, and the drawings for the development are sharp.

Designed by Nelsen Partners (best known for their Master Plan for the Domain, a 7.5 million SF mixed use development in North Austin), this development, called "5th and Baylor," has ground floor retail, office space, and a 300 car garage. Overall, it's a nice looking modern design, full of glass and exposed metal. There is nothing dramatic, but it is honest in the approach — each section has been designed differently to reflect its character. The ground floor retail is full of glass and open with few visible columns, easy for pedestrians and drivers to look inside. The office section has a corporate look with glass interspersed with blue colored glass panels and an ornamental metal grill wrapping around a portion of the second floor — one can imagine the VC fund opening shop there. Last, the garage does not try to hide itself — it's dressed up with gridded metalwork that relates to the office section and nicely locates the parking entrance to the rear. The building does an excellent job of occupying the corner, which is better than Whole Foods, which has a large surface parking lot in front of the store and office building. I like this building, and I'm glad it's going up.

Unfortunately, what is staying up, and not going underground, are all the utility poles and wires that dot the intersection and run along both street sides of the building. Check out the photos below to see what I am talking about.

In my mind, the entire development is killed by the urban noise of the poles and the wires. They line the side of the building, cross the intersection in three directions, and completely jumble the clean look of the building. Worst of all, nothing is going to be done about it. I called the development company, Schlosser Development Co., with my question, and they provided a resigned response: it's too expensive and Austin Energy (who owns most of the wires and poles) won't help foot the bill. The cost would be over $1 million just to remove the Austin Energy infrastructure, and that does not even include all the other utilities (AT&T, Time Warner, etc.) that have space on the poles. Apparently they were many discussions about this, but in the end, neither side budged, and this is what we get. Like a cute girl with permanent head-gear on, you'll never be able to fully appreciate the building.

I don't know if there is one particular culprit here. It's a big cost in any economic environment, especially this one, and I bet this game of chicken between developers and utilities takes place all the time. In the end, the City needs to determine its strategy for utility relocation. Right now, there is a spotty record. Most of downtown within blocks of Congress has no utility poles. When you venture outwards, some blocks have it, and some block don't. For example, on 5th street, about two blocks from 5th and Lamar, the Monarch apartment building drove their utilities underground for the section of the block right in front of the building, then went back to utility poles on either side.

While the cost to put all utilities underground would be prohibitively expensive, there are steps the City can take to alleviate the cost. It can provide a form of low cost financing or grants to utilities and private developers to bring the cost down, lower permitting costs if utility relocation is taking place, and bring utilities and developers to the table so they jointly plan together. It's possible that all this already occurs, but if it doesn't, it should.

Time will tell how this development actually looks in the end. Once it's built and open, I'll make another post describing the finished building. In the meantime, I'd love your comments on this, and your thoughts on design in Austin and elsewhere.


Ashley said...

This is a nice commentary on the difficult challenge of fitting private projects in public space. It's rare in an existing urban environment for the public utilities to retrofit their infrastructure for aesthetic reasons - it's hard to justify the cost. As more utility upgrades occur where there's an opportunity to bury the lines, I whole-heartedly support fitting in existing utilities to the benefit of the public at large. Until that time, I appreciate Troy bringing this to our attention and hope there are some creative design students out there who could perhaps work on the aesthetics of overhead wiring. Remember though that there are other issues - in migratory bird flyways, large colored bulbs are added to utility lines to reduce avian mortality. Nothing is simple!

bakar said...

With a small business like a photo studio, your location can make or break the business apart from the quality of your work of course. If you are losing out on customers because you are located in the wrong area you can run the risk of ruining your business. That is not an unhappy end at all, and it is for a reason that can be resolved quickly. So move to a better locality to help get your business back on its feet. At times there may be fluctuations in the local economy that we can?t really predict. What this means is, the viability of a business area is affected by economics. Maybe it was a great place to have an office five years ago, but things may have changed over the course of time. If you find yourself in such a situation, waste no more time and look for new premises. That?s the only way you will be able to get out of the mess that your surroundings could have gotten your business into. No doubt your new premises will help you make up for the loss.