Feature Illustration (above): Gensler and TBG architects had to design the Travis County Courthouse complex on land with an 18-foot grade difference. Courtesy: Gensler.
by Adolfo Pesquera
Austin (Travis County) — Designers for a new Travis County courthouse obtained recommendations in December from the city’s Design Commission on two requests, but the most significant change from a July presentation was the addition of a possible second tower.
Over the summer, Commissioners Court entered into an agreement with Hunt Development Group for a much needed new 12-story building to house the civil courts. It will be located in the 1700 block of Guadalupe Street, three blocks northwest of the Texas Capitol grounds.
Hunt is lead developer of a proposed 430,000-square-foot facility. Other members of the development team include:
- Chameleon Companies, co-developer
- Hensel Phelps, design-builder
- Gensler, lead architect
- TBG, landscape architect
- CGL Companies, lead courthouse designer
- Garza EMC, engineer
The project site has a public alley way that must be abandoned. The block is known for the stand-alone masonry W.B. Travis archway that faces Guadalupe Street (upper left). Images: Google Streets.
In a July 11 corporate announcement, Hunt predicted the building would be completed by the fourth quarter of 2022.
The block presented designers with a challenge in the form of a steep grade that rises almost 18 feet from the northeast corner to the southwest corner. This is being resolved by putting the parking garage underground, with the entrance/exit located on the lower site.
Part of the garage roof will function as the foundation for an above-ground public plaza. The perimeter of the plaza will be constructed of masonry walls and zig-zagging stairways that take pedestrians from street level to the ground floor of the courthouse level.
An approach to the plaza, corner of 17th Street and San Antonio Street. Courtesy: Gensler.
The design team’s official requests directed at the Design Commission were to recommend that the city abandon an alley that runs through the middle of the block, and to find that the concept is in compliance with the urban design guidelines. Both were approved unanimously.
The design guideline compliance is necessary to obtain a density bonus–Hunt wants a Floor Area Ratio (FAR) of 9.5-to-1. A 14-story office building has a 5:1 FAR limit.
The design team has met with the commission before and made numerous revisions at their suggestion, but the most pronounced change was the introduction of a second tower. A more narrow office tower of near equal height, it would hover above the plaza with the support of podium style plinths and a very narrow base.
“There’s a future Phase II tower,” said Chi Lee, Gensler’s Austin office senior project manager. At first, that was somewhat of a challenge to say, ‘Oh, there’s this really great public plaza. Where does over 50 percent of it go?’
“The lobby space for this second building becomes the only additional architecture in that (plaza) space. The building then floats over the top of the plaza about 36 feet.”
Site constraints the affected the site plan (above). The second officer tower would hover over the plaza in the bleached zone to the left (below). Courtesy: Gensler.
There is a space between the two buildings that is 50 feet wide at ground level but 60 feet wide glass-to-glass.
Another distinguishing feature between the two buildings is the courthouse will have much more masonry paneling on its exterior. The office building will allow more sunlight into work spaces due to a larger glass envelope.
Michael Whellan of Armbrust & Brown, land use attorney for the development team, informed the city in September of plans for the density bonus.
“The proposed buildings will be 242 feet tall. The density bonus … would allow approximately 725,138 square feet of building area,” Whellan stated.
Commissioner Evan Taniguchi added one condition to the panel’s approval of the density bonus. If the second building is not built, the developers must maintain the plaza as presented.
The second tower, if and when it is built, will hover 36 feet above a series of secluded open air gardens and patios that make up the public plaza. Courtesy: Gensler.
As seen in the north elevation, the second office tower will allow more sunlight into office spaces through the use of a larger percentage of glass panes. Courtesy: Gensler.