Austin American Statesman: Stacked: A look inside Austin’s ‘Jenga tower’

September 3, 2019

When architect Brett Rhode set out to design what would become Austin’s tallest tower, he and the building’s developer envisioned a high-rise like no other on the skyline — one that would make a bold statement and be a distinctive landmark.

Now, as residents continue moving into the 58-story Independent condominium and the finishing touches are put on, that mission has been accomplished, observers say.

The building is distinguished by its cubed, offset design, one that is unique to Austin, but not to some other cities around the world, and has earned it the nickname the “Jenga tower.”

The tower, which broke ground in 2016, is billed as the tallest residential high-rise west of the Mississippi River. Located on 1.7 acres at the northeast corner of West Third and West streets, the building has a value of more than $300 million, its developers say.

Austin architect Jim Susman, a principal at STG Design, recently told the Statesman that the tower “represents a significant departure from many of Austin’s more traditional high-rise forms with its dynamic stacking of floors by blocks.”

The building’s “height and unique profile will inherently give it an iconic presence in the city’s skyline, and likely open the door for still more intriguing designs” in the future, Susman said.

In a recent first-hand account chronicling how the design came about, Rhode said he hopes the building “inspires others to be bold on the skyline.”

Members of the press got their first official look inside the building this week. During a guided tour, Rhode said his aim was to “make something very noticeable, very innovative,” on Austin’s skyline — one that has under gone dramatic change over the past two decades as successive waves of ever -taller buildings have left their mark.

“We just love the way it turned out,” said Rhode, whose Austin-based firm Rhode-Partners designed both the Independent tower and its interiors.

At 675 feet high, the Independent towers over Austin’s former tallest building, the 56-story Austonian, by just two stories and two feet. The Independent features 363 luxury condominiums, which over time have ranged in price from the $400,000s to more than $5 million.

Amenities include a children’s playroom and playground, dog park and dog washing station, pool, fitness center, yoga room, owners’ lounge, guest suites, theater room and a business center with conference rooms.

Jennifer Seay, founder and president of Austin-based Art + Artisans, curated 80 pieces of art throughout the building by 23 Texas, national and international artists. Seay said the collection “adds a heightened sense of luxury to The Independent. ““We wanted each piece to feel hand-picked, personal and thoughtfully selected, and to contribute to the joy residents feel coming home to this beautiful space,” Seay said.

Urbanspace Real Estate + Interiors, the exclusive listing brokerage for the condos in the Independent, has purchased all the ground-floor commercial space in the project, where it will more than double its office footprint as well as open a neighborhood coffee shop and bar concept. Urbanspace also is seeking a restaurant operator.

Kevin Burns, Urbanspace’s founder and CEO, has said the coffee shop and bar are expected to open in time for SXSW 2020. Burns said the new concepts will be “a hybrid of Cheers and a high-end hotel lobby bar, with an authentic Austin feel.”

The Independent was developed by Austin-based Aspen Heights, along with Los Angeles -based CIM Group and Austin-based Constructive Ventures. Aspen Heights’ Ryan Fetgatter said Tuesday that the goal “was to create something spectacular — let’s have some fun, let’s take some risks.”

Rhode said the building’s cantilevered form derived from the aim to have units be of different sizes and at different locations throughout the building. Units range in size from 675 square feet to 3,485 square feet, across one- to four-bedroom floor plans, as well as penthouses.

“We wanted to give a real variety to the residences,” Rhode said. “So the big idea was to use that as a way to provide a kind of movement in the building, using different apartments at different floor levels, which in turn created different offsets in the building, and that’s what led to the pretty distinctive silhouette on the skyline.”

In recalling the origin of the building, Rhode said that it started with a call one Saturday morning from Fetgatter. Rhode, a graduate of the University of Texas School of Architecture, had worked on another tower with Aspen Heights, but said the call “came completely out of the blue.”

Early in his career, Rhode worked at different times with legendary architects I.M. Pei and Philip Johnson. (Jacqueline Kennedy commissioned Pei to design the John F. Kennedy Library. And Johnson, considered the dean of American architects, is known for projects including the Museum of Modern Art in New York.)

Fetgatter had called “to tell me that we were together going to design and build one of the most important buildings ever to hit Austin, ” Rhode wrote in his first-person account.

“As with most endeavors of this sort, the challenges were only partially known at the start, and became rather momentous as we moved further into it,” Rhode said. “The site was beset with numerous sins of the past, including a forgotten street and errant subterranean waterworks on the front half. Shoal Creek around the north and east sides, and to round things out a Capitol view corridor to the west.

“All this left a small patch of ground to build a tower,” he said. “We decided togo for it.”

Rhode credits Roger Heeringa and Kris Swanson with DCI Engineers for “helping us marry structure to the concept.”

“People still ask me if I think the building will topple over. I refer them to Roger and Kris,” Rhode said.

For proponents of dense high-rising living downtown, the vertical neighborhood of 363 residences is viewed as a way to help counter suburban sprawl and traffic congestion, while at the same time adding to the city’s tax base.

“The walkability of the area is exactly what downtown buyers are looking for,” Charles Heimsath, an Austinbased real estate expert, told the Statesman previously.

“The downtown condo market continues to exceed expectations, particularly given the high prices and the number of projects vying for buyers,” Heimsath, president of Capitol Market Research, said in 2017.

Toni Calderon, who lives in the Independent, told the Statesman recently: “I barely touch a car during the week” and walks, or takes a scooter or rides hare, whenever he can.

The area’s walkability also was a draw for Leon Chen and Tiffany Taylor Chen, the husband - and - wife duo who founded the Tiff’s Treats cookie delivery business. The Chens, parents of young twins, bought a unit in the Independent but also will be keeping their house in Northwest Austin.

Calderon said the building itself gives Austin “a very recognizable and unique skyline. ” “Most cities have some signature buildings, and I think the Independent could be what makes people recognize Austin’s skyline around the world, ” Calderon said in a previous interview.

Longtime Austinite Perry Lorenz is one of the original developers who helped create the vision for the Independent.

Two years ago, as the building made its presence known on the skyline, Lorenz has said he hoped the vertical neighborhood “will be emblematic of what downtown residential density accomplishes: (363) households living on a small footprint, which equates to dozens of blocks of a conventional residential neighborhood, yet residents will not be watering lawns nor getting into their cars routinely, while generating millions of dollars in ad valorem tax dollars to pay for schools, city services and infrastructure all over the city.”

In June, as the Independent’s initial move-ins continued, Lorenz said, “The appreciation for the efficiencies, the convenience and the inherent sustainability of dense high-rise living is the hallmark of great cities all over the world. This is what city leaders have wanted for years and now it’s here.”

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