Proposal to Protect Capitol Views Would Limit Development in Central and East Austin

Feb 16, 2017

Stand atop the hill at the northeast corner of the Texas State Cemetery, and you’ll have a clear view of the Texas State Capitol. It rises alongside a row of trees, now leafless, and a Texas flag. That view, some City Council members say, demands protection.

“This resolution is to preserve the Capitol corridor views that were identified but not enacted in the 1980s,” Council Member Ora Houston wrote in an email.

Houston’s proposal would add five Capitol view corridors to the 35 existing ones established by the state and city. These views are protected lines of sight from which someone can stand on a specific Austin street and make out the Goddess of Liberty – the female figure that caps the Capitol dome.

The current Capitol view corridors stretch into all angles of the city, with nearly one-third reaching east of the Capitol and four extending beyond I-35. Despite this, Houston said that her proposal to establish view corridors at Rosewood Park, Lott Park, Juniper Street, the Texas State Cemetery and Huston-Tillotson University is about ensuring the building is within eyeshot of all communities.

“It is about equity for the communities that have been disenfranchised and marginalized,” she wrote. “The intention is not to interrupt or prevent any specific projects, but to begin the discussion about how we can preserve these views of this one-of-a-kind building from East Austin.”

But those with development plans in the area are not happy – such as Central Health, which last year released a master plan for the redevelopment of the Brackenridge Hospital campus, which stretches from 15th Street just west of I-35 to almost 12th Street.

“One of the proposed corridors would go through the southern part of our property,” said Clarke Heidrick, who sits on the Central Health board of managers. According to Heidrick, three blocks of Central Health’s proposed development fall into one of the Capitol view corridors.

But while Heidrick said that Central Health was blindsided by the proposal, he said he believes Houston was unaware that the corridors would affect Central Health’s plans.

“I do not believe there was any kind of secret agenda or any kind of hidden activity on her part,” he said. “I think it surprised her, and it surprised us.”

He said Central Health has been speaking with Houston, and she seems amenable to changing her plans. 

The proposed corridors could also affect development hopes that Mayor Steve Adler has for eastern portions of downtown. The mayor, who could not be reached for comment, supports the additional Capitol view corridors as do Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and council members Leslie Pool and Alison Alter.

Dewitt Peart, CEO of the Downtown Austin Alliance, said restrictions on the height of new development in order to preserve a view of the Capitol could cost the city – literally.

Credit Gabriel Cristóver Pérez / KUT

“What we’re seeing is the potential risk of losing that tax increment if these corridors go in place,” said Peart.

Stephen Gibson of Eureka Holdings, which manages owners of multifamily developments in six states including Texas, said the limits that Capitol view corridors place on development is concerning for a city with rising housing costs.

“It simply comes down to math,” said Gibson. “I think if you build more densely and higher, it does things for affordability.”

At least one group has come out in support of Houston’s measure. A letter addressed to the mayor and signed by Benjamin M. Hanson, chair of the Texas State Cemetery Committee, noted the benefit of preserving the view of the state house from cemetery grounds.

“Several of the Cemetery’s most prominent founding fathers have their headstones oriented to the west in order to face the Capitol building,” wrote Hanson. The cemetery serves as final home to Stephen F. Austin and Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock.

Council members will take up the item at today’s meeting.

Update: Council Member Ora Houston amended her quote from an earlier email.

This story was produced as a part of KUT's reporting partnership with the Austin Monitor.