Guest post: An Austin perspective on CentrePointe

Here is a guest post from Billy Hylton, a 1998 University of Kentucky graduate who then lived in Austin for six years before moving to Chapel Hill, N.C., where he is a Web designer. He contacted me today after reading my posts from the Commerce Lexington trip to Austin.

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CentrePointe Tower has been ridiculed as bland, uninspired, and elitist. It could be worse. Austin’s glass-skinned Frost Bank Tower was once described as “an enormous set of nose hair trimmers.” Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones even claimed that Frost was built at the direction of the secretive Bohemian Club. Something about it resembling an owl.

What did Austin’s vaunted creative class think? They wanted to keep the city weird and the “world-class tower” was the antithesis of funky, vibrant Austin. Build it in Houston, they said. But an interesting thing happened after the tower pierced the sky in 2003. Frost was voted “Best New Building” by readers of the influential progressive weekly Austin Chronicle for a whopping five years in a row. Huh?

The Frost Tower story offers a lesson for CentrePointe advocates and detractors. From a visual standpoint, Frost is certainly an impressive addition to the skyline. But what earned the building props in the Chron has more to do with what’s happening at the street level. There are no quasi-public plazas or landscape features set back from the road. Similarly, marble-walled fountains are missing too. Frost is pure urbanism, with retail and restaurants pushed right to the sidewalk. Standing in front of the building’s Congress Avenue entrance, you don’t appreciate the massive scale of a 33-story skyscraper looming above. Traditional urban form and shimmering post-modernism make the tower a success with high-minded architectural critics and the folks alike.

What can be learned from the success of this project? Good architectural design and aesthetics are often debatable, but what everyone in Lexington should agree on is that all four sides of the tower engage and energize the city around it. Here’s what that means:

  • Entrances to the hotel, restaurants, and retail should be easily accessible on all sides from the sidewalk.
  • Restaurants and cafes should be encouraged to include sidewalk tables.
  • No poorly conceived garage parking, surface parking, or blank walls.
  • No parks or plazas set back twenty feet, even if packaged as “greenspace.”
  • Local businesses should be included in retail plans.

These simple considerations will go a long way to ensuring that this project is an asset to downtown Lexington. In fact, if CentrePointe is properly executed, Lexington’s creative citizens and downtown aficionados may recognize that losing the Dame, Mia’s, and other buildings on the block was ultimately worth the trade-off — just as Austinites now love Frost Tower.