The fight to balance small-town charm with big-city amenities is a recurring theme in Austin, one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. Take the latest flap, over the view of the Texas Capitol building.
By state law, the view must be clear on all sides, meaning no tall buildings can block the Capitol sightlines. But as Austin's economy continues to boom, city leaders are rethinking the so-called view corridors to make room for development.
A committee is looking into which, if any, of the scores of sightlines -- unobstructed views of the Capitol -- can be eliminated, and preservationists have sounded the alarm. The views help make Austin an open, accessible city, said Julian Read, a Heritage Society board member. Do away with them, and quirky Austin risks becoming "a cold canyon of high-rises," he said.
"We don't want to become another Chicago," Read said. "We want to guard the charm that brings people to Austin."
The Capitol is in the heart of Austin. Completed in 1888, it's built of native red granite and limestone, and modeled on the U.S. Capitol -- but in true Texas style, the Lone Star version is 15 feet higher. As you near downtown, the domed building is a reference point from almost any angle, as iconic as the University of Texas tower to the north.
Thirty view corridors, each with secondary sightlines, converge on the Capitol from all directions. The panel studying the views will gauge the likelihood of anyone actually enjoying each one, and weigh the cost of maintaining a view against possible revenue from construction.
"People think it's a giant developers' conspiracy to wreck our heritage and do away with all that's good with Austin," said developer Robert Knight, who is on a city commission for downtown redevelopment. "That's not the case.... It makes sense to preserve some views, but not all of them, not every view from every angle. You've got to draw a line."
For example, he said, one corridor includes the upper deck of a freeway ramp. If it costs the city $2 million in lost revenue to maintain a view for "people who are traveling 70 mph and dodging 18-wheelers," he said, why bother preserving it?
State legislators have made three exceptions to the law, allowing, for instance, construction of an upper deck at the University of Texas stadium. Any more chipping away of the law represents a "creeping degradation a foot at a time," Read said. "We respect the fact that people want to grow -- that's why all these developers are coming to Austin. We just don't want the character of the community to be sacrificed for a quick buck, because once it's gone, it's gone."
Legislators seized on the idea of view corridors after a few tall buildings went up near the Capitol in the early 1980s. The idea of preserving views worked in Washington, Paris and Rome, so surely Austin could benefit, they reasoned. "We thought it would be good to do it, rather than let greedy developers build around one of the most beautiful views in the state," said former Democratic state Sen. Craig Washington, later a congressman.
Twenty years later, the corridors are more relevant than ever, he said. "Blocking it would be like hitting the delete key on the computer. It'll just be gone.... It was all about money then, and it's all about money now."
In the last 15 years, Austin's population has grown by almost 50%, to nearly 700,000, with much of the expansion on the city fringes. The question is whether continued growth will be up or out, Knight said. City leaders are encouraging density in urban areas as opposed to urban sprawl -- but any changes in Capitol views will have to go through the Legislature because state law is at issue.
If it gets that far, Read predicts a battle. "The views are a treasure that belong to the people of Texas," he said. "As preservation boards around the state learn about this, there's going to be a great deal of opposition. It's an issue that hits nerves."