‘Signature’ tower project on 1.7-acre downtown Austin property must prioritize affordable housing, City Council says

The proposal from Aspen Heights Partners would place two towers—one residential and one office—on the downtown tract. (Courtesy Austin Economic Development Department)
The proposal from Aspen Heights Partners would place two towers—one residential and one office—on the downtown tract. (Courtesy Austin Economic Development Department)

The proposal from Aspen Heights Partners would place two towers—one residential and one office—on the downtown tract. (Courtesy Austin Economic Development Department)

The city of Austin will begin negotiating what will go into the long-awaited tower project on the city-owned, 1.7-acre tract at 1215 Red River St. following some specific directives from City Council during its Jan. 27 meeting.

The development represents a rare opportunity for the city to mold a downtown tower into a project that meets its needs. In greenlighting the commencement of negotiations between the city and Austin-based developer Aspen Heights Partners, City Council gave the Austin Economic Development Department a list of priorities.

The deal-breaker priority is affordable housing. Since the city reacquired development rights to the tract in 2016 after HealthSouth vacated it, the potential of the property has been tied to getting affordable housing downtown for the service industry and low-income workers in the Central Business District.

District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo, who has had the project in her sights for years, also pushed to prioritize family-sized affordable housing in the project. She said the development should be a “signature project” for the city and that the city should do on this tract what City Council is always asking private developers to do: provide more affordable housing and more two- and three-bedroom units for families.

The second and third priorities for City Council were getting affordable child care providers and a live music venue into the development. Affordable child care and maintaining the city’s live music identity have long been priorities as the cost of real estate in the city has skyrocketed in recent years.

Live music venues have continued to suffer through the pandemic and remain on the brink of closure, especially in the Red River Cultural District—the city’s densest collection of live music venues. The 1215 Red River St. project sits just north of the Red River district. Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he saw this development as the city’s “last and best chance” to preserve a live music presence on Red River Street.

The city first sought development proposals for the tract in November 2019. The city said the project outlined by the Austin-based Aspen Heights Partners—responsible for downtown’s Independent skyscraper—best met its wants.

Two towers are proposed for the site. The first would be a 36-story, 420,000-square-foot residential tower with 348 apartments and 160 condos. The tower will offer 25% of the total units as affordable housing, with a mix of rental units for residents earning between 50%-60% of the median family income—$48,800-$58,550 for a family of four—and ownership condos for residents earning 80% of the median family income—$78,100 for a family of four.

The second would be as a 15-story, 170,000-square-foot office tower, which, according to Margaret Shaw, a program manager with the economic development department, would come with other components as well, including 25,000 square feet of retail space, 18,000 of which will be dedicated as a “culinary destination” with space for the “local food system.” The proposal also includes a rooftop cafe and publicly available viewing deck, 6,000 square feet of music and arts space, and a 22,000-square-foot elevated plaza that would connect the towers and act as a public park.

The city will now negotiate City Council’s priorities into the project and come back to City Council later this year with a master development agreement, which sets binding rules for how the property is developed.
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and several other local outlets along the east coast.


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