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(Leslee Bassman)

Although the pandemic has stifled real estate projects in much of the nation, developer Turnbridge Equities LLC managed to bring a unique, successful spin to Austin's South Congress area. By encompassing the same moniker as the venue's Music Lane sidestreet, from a branding perspective, the new, multi-use development strikes the right chord.

Designed by architecture firm Lake | Flato, the project is constructed along the north end of the South Congress entertainment district at Academy Drive. At a total area of just over 300,000 square feet, the site combines office, retail, restaurant and fitness venues.

(Leslee Bassman)

"A lot of people don't realize that Music Lane was actually first a street (off) South Congress," said Taylor Shepherd, communications and engagement manager for Endeavor Real Estate, the firm that serves as the commercial real estate leasing agent and property manager for a majority of Music Lane. "The development itself was drawn from that name and that street so we also love that it pays homage to Austin's live music scene."

She said the project aims to fill the gap between downtown and South Austin, with that goal reflected in the mix of local retailers as well as stores that are making their Texas debut in the project.

Retailers include:

  • Allbirds, Buck Mason, Equinox (fitness)
  • Everlane
  • Frame
  • Le Labo
  • Lululemon
  • Madewell Men's
  • Manready Mercantile
  • Nak Armstrong
  • Neighborhood Goods
  • Parachute
  • Reformation
  • Tuft & Needle

(Leslee Bassman)

"There was a strong desire from the retail community to be on South Congress, something upscale," Turnbridge Principal Roger Plourde said.

Deep and wide, he said two acres within the roughly three-acre tract that was redeveloped offered the opportunity to provide individual tenant spaces within a structure featuring paseos and walkways converging at central spots.

The second and third phases were revitalized from older, garden-style apartments, Plourde said.

However, the timing of the project's opening—to coincide with Austin's iconic SXSW festivals—proved a bit frustrating for the developers as the pandemic took hold, Plourde said.

The first retail tenant, Allbirds, opened just seven days before the commercial district shut down in March, Shepherd said. Two other tenants also opened very briefly that week; however, all three stores closed shortly thereafter, Plourde said. But the project is now on track.

"That was a hard hit," Plourde said of the shops and restaurants that shuttered due to coronavirus precautions. "That was a really tough time for us but I think all of our tenants showed a great deal of resilience. They're all back and with their doors open now."

Four restaurants are now open as well as 14 vendors, with only one retail space remaining to be filled, Shepherd said. Austin-based jeweler Nak Armstrong welcomed customers in his first flagship store on Dec. 8, she said. Global design and strategy firm, Frog Design, erected its sign two days later, and is slated to take occupancy in January, Plourde said.

Restaurants include:

  • Aba, Prim and Proper (within Neighborhood Goods)
  • Sunlife Organics
  • Sweetgreen
  • Two Hands

According to Bea Reeve-Tucker, communications assistant for Soho House & Co., an offshoot of the London-based exclusive club is slated to be included among Music Lane's inhabitants this summer. The approximately 65,000-square-foot site will be the community's first in Austin and third in the U.S., following New York and Los Angeles openings.

The private group attracts members in creative industries and offers an environment for living, relaxing and dining. The Austin facility will feature a rooftop pool, a members' screening room and 46 bedrooms, Reeve-Tucker stated in an email to Austonia.

Mediterranean restaurant Aba, named for the Hebrew word "father," chose Music Lane as its inaugural location outside of the Windy City. The eatery, owned by dining enterprise Lettuce Entertain You, is centered around a prominent oak tree and, serendipitously, had planned for 70% of its seating to be outdoors, even before the pandemic hit, said Lettuce Associate Partner Sue Kim who recently relocated to Austin.

(Leslee Bassman)

The group had been "enamored" with the city for quite some time, she said, visiting for a company retreat in 2017 before the opportunity to join the Music Lane community came along.

"I think South Congress has been a historic part of this city," Kim said. "The location is terrific: it's close to downtown, it's adjacent to some of the existing restaurants and history."

She said the nearby neighborhoods of Bouldin and Travis Heights can benefit from its residents having the amenities that Music Lane offers. And, the project's landscape, its openness and tree preservation, is also a draw for customers, she said.

Shepherd credits Aba's success to its strong following in Chicago's Fulton Market District.

"Aba, as a concept, is about Mediterranean dining and creating this oasis, making people feel like you just landed somewhere in the Mediterranean and have this lush greenery," Kim said. "This is what we created in Chicago on a very large scale roof deck. So, in many ways, it was a really perfect concept for this area given that we wrapped our patio around this beautiful, beautiful oak tree. It is a landmark piece."

Local design and architecture firm Gensler became the development's anchor tenant in March, occupying two floors, or roughly half of the project's approximately 52,000 total square feet of office space, including a skylight, double-story staircase and a 10-foot by 26-foot digital wall, Managing Director Todd Runkle said. However, due to all of its employees working remotely while the pandemic is in play, the new offices wait to be filled, he said.

"There's nothing like this," Runkle said of Music Lane. "We, at Gensler, felt it was about being a part of Austin. That's really why we wanted to be down here. It was a project and space that we thought reflected Austin and where we want to be in the future."

Gensler's 147 employees have recently been working on large-scale projects including creating the Austin FC soccer stadium; developing the city's soon-to-be largest tower, 6XGuadalupe; renovating the University of Texas Moody Center's basketball arena; and expanding the Austin Convention Center. With room for up to 220 employees, the new Music Lane office provides space for the company to grow.

Tritium Partners and Deloitte have joined Gensler as office tenants in the complex.

(Isabella Lopes)

Music Lane is in sync with surrounding venues created by former Bunkhouse Group hotelier Liz Lambert, including the recently opened Hotel Magdalena, an 86-room South Congress lodging at Music and Academy, and established Hotel Saint Cecilia that is adding residential units to its site.

But, feedback from locals isn't all positive.

"It's like they built a little domain down there," said Alan Barnett, owner of South Congress gift and accessory shop Prima Dora, after eyeing the Music Lane project. "I'm not sure if I like it or not. I'm trying to be open minded about it. But at the same time, it's like, now you're changing us too much, Austin."

After settling in the neighborhood about two decades ago, he's "watched some incredible houses being moved out of this neighborhood and very modern things being built here."

Barnett touts the area's popularity as stemming from its vintage homes and large trees.

"And now getting rid of those houses, it's going to look like anywhere else," he said.

Diners and shoppers are also unhappy with the scarcity of parking at the new venue.

Shepherd said that issue may stem from patrons not being aware of the project's parking garage—an underground facility that can hold 496 vehicles.

To get the word out about the garage and the development, she said Music Lane and the South Congress Shopping District held the SoCo Stroll this month. The event features holiday activities, retailer discounts and performances through Dec. 31.

Despite the pandemic, construction at Music Lane has been able to continue, Shepherd said.

"We've just been very fortunate to have the majority of our tenants open safely," she said.

Laura Figi contributed to this story.

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