City planners to consider more ‘point towers’

AUSTIN (KXAN) — You might soon start seeing more tall, skinny buildings go up in downtown Austin. City planners are giving developers the OK on a case-by-case basis. The concern for some is the number of stairwells that can fit inside those buildings.

They are what the city calls ‘point towers.’ The designation comes from the ground area to height ratio; basically, a really tall building on a small slab of land. As downtown Austin grows, there is not much space to move but up. And there is demand.

“The most important thing to us was having a downtown location,” said Leigh Brown. “As you see, I was just walking home from work, so that’s kind of nice.”

Brown lives in the Spring Condominium building on Bowie Street, ans is considered a point tower. These type of buildings are technically getting around safety code requirements. Codes require at least two staircases, spaced apart, in such tall buildings. But, the skinnier the building, the less room for stairs without compromising livable space.

“I guess there’s two [staircases] that kind of coil around each other to go downstairs, so it doesn’t take up a lot of space,” said Brown of her building. “It’s not something I even thought about moving in, but now knowing that, yea, I guess it’s really useful to have two in case something collapses in one, or something blocks one.”

Officials with Austin’s Planning and Development Review Department told city leaders earlier this month they will consider point towers with just one stairwell on a case by case basis. Staff with the department told city leaders they feel confident these types of high rises can continue to be approved. They say working with the fire department and plan review teams will ensure safety.

And it will help answer the need for more places to live.

“I like having that dense, walkable, urban feel,” Brown said.

Still, some worry that comes at a cost.

The requirement for separate staircases in tall buildings comes from codes developed after the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Centers. After learning about Austin allowing some buildings to not comply, former Austin Fire Department Chief Bill Roberts contacted KXAN. He said in part, “If a developer can’t omit a single unit per floor in order to properly provide another escape route, I’d question the wisdom of the project.”

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