Essential Texans VIII: Texas-Sized Urbanism Image

by Texas Public Employees Association | June 21, 2021

Essential Texans VIII: Texas-Sized Urbanism

Austin’s Congress Avenue buzzes with activity. In Summer 2022, its north side will too. For the last two years, the area drops into a 60-foot-deep canyon excavated for a project transforming the Capitol Complex into a paragon of urban design.

Currently, the Capitol Complex is a construction cocoon incubating two new State office buildings, a five-story underground garage, and a tree-lined pedestrian mall. The State mandates responsibility for the Capitol Complex Project to the Texas Facilities Commission (TFC). Just under 400 TFC employees work to manage the operations, maintenance, and moving parts of the 32.1 million square feet of State-owned or managed commercial space, including 800 active leases. These public servants take on the building of our state facilities with a sound economic motive: saving taxpayer money. Rapidly rising rents in Austin affect many of our state government agencies that lease office space downtown. The expected costs of future leases justify the almost $900 million in revenue bonds to pay for this project. By moving state employees to state-owned property, TFC expects to save $25 million every year for Phase I of this project.

Managing the procurement process and award of contracts, TFC employees introduce the latest technologies to state government construction projects. Designers and project engineers use Building Information Modeling (BIM) software to model how complicated building systems interrelate. By providing realistic reference material of the intended construction, BIM ensures contractors and subcontractors stay on the same page — TFC tailors project solutions with greater ease. BIM also helps TFC show the public its business. Elaborate BIM renderings are superimposed onto drone footage of our actual urban landscape to make a highly convincing video of what the Capitol Complex will be after construction. This technology reminds us of the Industrial Light & Magic effects that make movies like Star Wars so cool.

State employees like Francoise E. Luca turn otherwise mundane construction details into marketing material for the Lone Star State’s newest destination — The Texas Mall. Thanks to the Essential Texans at TFC, the Capitol Complex Project sets a high bar for transparency in public infrastructure projects.

In December, we first spoke with Francoise E. Luca, TFC Communications Specialist and an initial communication hire for the agency. She explained, “We [at TFC] have these massive construction projects underway in the center of a busy business campus, and we felt it was very important to communicate to our fellow state employees how the project is coming along and to document this important work for future generations.” Although new to the State, her experience from two decades in the private sector helps her tell the TFC story. Scrolling the Capitol Complex Project website, you see all sorts of videos and photographs taken by the contractors to document their work for the history books of Texas. Luca hyped up a 2:00 am image of the first concrete poured on site; or the aftermath of a late-night storm as interesting viewing for construction geeks and historians.

Transparency matters when our state government invests $900 million on a project this immense. State contracts involve exhaustive paperwork and strict payment schedules. Small contractors and many Historically Underutilized Businesses (HUBs) often find they cannot take on projects complicated by such hurdles. Larger “prime contractors” can subcontract to tradesmen and smaller specialized firms, offering economic growth opportunities to many. Yet, that only benefits those that hear of the opportunity. TFC employs a robust HUB program to connect HUBs to prime contractors, which might need subcontractors for specific trades or skills like communications, surveying, safety training, and (lately) health screening roles. Every contractor and subcontractor plays a valuable part in this legacy project.

TFC chose a firm with Texas roots, Page Southerland Page, to make the 2016 Capitol Complex Master Plan. Among other improvements, the plan allocates space for a cultural venue in the George H.W. Bush Office Building to invite more visitors to the corner of Congress and MLK Blvd’s museum district and mall. Lawrence Speck, senior principal at Page, seems well-suited to connect the Capitol Complex to its surrounding urban environment. In the 1990s, Speck sat on the master planning committee for the University of Texas at Austin; that committee planned the Speedway Mall that now runs from Dean Keaton down to the Blanton Museum of Art. Decades later, Speck’s plan for the Capitol Complex introduces a Texas Mall that will run from 15th Street up to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum… opposite the Blanton. The result will be a pedestrian mall experienced from the grounds of the Capitol, through the transformed Capitol Complex, and the UT Mall, to Speedway, for a total span of 11 city blocks. This Texas-sized urbanism befits the thousands of state employees, our Essential Texans, who will work in the capital.

Further Reading:
$900M project will reshape area north of Capitol, bring thousands more workers into downtown Austin
Forward: The Texas Capitol Complex, Reimagined | Flintco
Agency Strategic Plan, Fiscal Years 2021 -2025
2016 Capitol Complex Master Plan

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