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Constable's Notebook - May 2007

“This building fires the heart and excites reflection in the minds of all," said Senator Temple Houston, Sam Houston’s son, at the dedication of the new Texas State Capitol building on May 16, 1888.

Rising to a height of 311 feet, located high on a hill at the time considered to be one of the true wonders of the world, those who conceived the Capitol building never envisioned that views of this magnificent building would ever be obstructed. The City of Austin recognized a need to preserve views of the Capitol and passed an ordinance limiting the height of buildings to 200 feet with exceptions for increased setbacks. In 1963 and 1968 (and not without controversy) developers used the setback exception to construct the Westgate Building and Dobie Mall. After the City’s approval of the “wedding cake” tower at 6th St. and Congress, Senator Doggett and Rep. Hill passed Capitol view corridor legislation that protected the remaining 30 views of the Capitol building. In 2001 and 2003 the Legislature passed amendments to the capitol view corridor statute exempting the 11th Street revitalization project and Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium.

In 2003 a study commissioned to assess the effect the view corridor had on downtown development concluded that “some value should be assigned to the lost tax revenue from reduced square footage of a built-out scenario…” Austin Mayor Wynn recently stated in an Austin Chronicle article “that a 1.8 second view of the Capitol off IH 35 has cost the city millions in development.” The view corridor study, a downtown building boom and Travis County’s recent interest in building a civil courthouse, prompted a review of the value of each of the remaining 26 corridors by the Austin Downtown Commission and new legislation by Representative Mike Krusee. House Bill 3716 would authorize the Texas Historical Commission, General Land Office, or the City of Austin to amend the view corridor legislation under certain circumstances.

The Heritage Society of Austin opposes changes to the Capitol view corridor law. “It is the sole preservation mechanism for ensuring continued views of the capitol for everyone - the State capitol being the most recognized and prized symbol of Austin and the State of Texas,” stated Society president Dennis McDaniel. Dealy Herndon who managed the recent Capitol restoration project and a Heritage Society board member, said that the Heritage Society supports the goal of urban revitalization and downtown residences, but “No great American city has revitalized its downtown by sacrificing its most cherished and significant features.”

What is the relative worth of great views of our State Capitol versus the value of additional economic development if certain corridors were amended or eliminated? There is no mathematical formula that can provide us with the answer. As taxpayers who benefit from economic development and as guardians of our State Capitol, Austinites have a special responsibility to be a part of this decision making process and to make sure that we get it right.

Material for this column was compiled from several sources including the Austin Chronicle, Austin Heritage Society, University of North Carolina report on Austin’s Capitol View Corridor, Texas News, News 8 Austin and the State Preservation Board.

Nearly 120 years after the Goddess of Liberty was first placed atop of the Capitol, “The people pushing this need to understand that the Capitol views belong to all the people of Texas, not land speculators and developers.”

With proper planning, having a larger downtown population need not be at the expense of the Capitol views enjoyed by all Texans.

"Texas stands peerless amid the mighty, and her brow is crowned with bewildering magnificence!

“Infill development supports the local economy by keeping jobs, goods and services within the city.”

“Of all the capitols of the Gilded Age, Austin’s…was most like a parody of the national Capitol.” Henry Russell-Hitchcock

The Texas Capitol is an extraordinary example of late 19th century public architecture and is widely recognized as one of the nation's most distinguished state capitols.

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