“We had one opportunity to get things right,” said Greystar Development managing director Derek Brown about Lamar Union, a new one-million-square-foot mixed-use complex just a mile south of downtown Austin. The site was formerly occupied by Lamar Plaza, a shopping center home to funky but beloved local businesses like Ray Hennig’s Heart of Texas Music, World Spirit books, Mr. Gene’s Hair Fashion Salon, and, since 2005, popular brew-and-view the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. To Brown, an Austin native, getting it right meant creating a complex that would fit into the eclectic Zilker neighborhood, with a plan that favors bikes and foot traffic over automobiles, maintains and expands the Alamo Drafthouse as the anchor tenant, and leases to predominantly local commercial tenants.
To realize this vision, Greystar hired Dallas-based BOKA Powell as executive architect and master planner for the firm’s experience with large multifamily and commercial projects. Local hotshot Michael Hsu was brought on as consulting design architect for his resume of successful restaurants and retail establishments. The project involved a renovation of the Alamo Drafthouse’s existing six-theater facility and addition of three new theaters, an entry lobby, and the Highball Lounge. In addition, three new multi-story buildings are being built to house 433 apartments, seven new restaurants, and over 86,000 square feet of retail space. There are also parking garages for 1,354 cars, curb-less promenade-style street-scapes, and a central plaza.
The design is modern and sleek, but also crafty and cool—more Venice Beach than Dallas, and very much in-line with Austin’s quirkier side. Materials include red powder-coated aluminum cladding on the Alamo, inspired by a big red curtain, and custom-colored metal panels attached to the apartment exteriors in random patterns. Apartments have taller-than-usual windows and feel like townhouses, especially those facing Treadwell Street, which have front doors that open onto the newly appointed, tree-lined street.
Greystar decided to allow the commercial tenants to choose their own architects for their individual spaces, which has made completing the project a complicated choreography of planning and design. “There was definitely a directive to do something outside the norm,” said Eric van Hyfte, senior associate for BOKA Powell. “There’s usually a formula for retail when it’s paired with multifamily, but the design team did not want to shoehorn the retail into generic spaces.” Greystar, commercial partner Stream Realty, BOKA Powell, and Hsu all agreed that the neighborhood and the businesses themselves would benefit by expressing their individuality, despite the economic risk and the confusion of multiple architects and contractors crossing paths during construction.
Hsu’s eponymous firm designed two of the new eateries, including the one non-Austin-based restaurant, Shake Shack (its first outpost outside of New York), and Cantine, a new venture by Asti and Fino owners Emmett and Lisa Fox. “We set up loose rules for uniformity,” said Hsu, “so everyone has a unique branded identity. There’s no doubt this is unusual for a project this large. But because we had the Alamo we could do something more organic here.” Other architects and designers involved in the project include Clayton & Little, Jaimie Chioco, Aria Group Architects, William Hodge of Ochona Development + Architecture, Runa Workshop, and Alan Nutt Architects. Austin landscape architect firm DWG designed the streetscapes, which feature native plantings, shade trees, and rain gardens.
Greystar opted not to pursue LEED or Austin Energy Green Building certification, instead deciding to seek the less rigorous National Green Building Standard certification. “There was no client-driven expectation for LEED,” said van Hyfte.
The Alamo and the Highball opened in September, and the residences in that building are currently leasing for a November move-in date. Building 2, on Lamar and Treadwell, should be open this winter. The last building is expected to be complete by summer 2015.