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Domain-ization: The suburbs will look a lot more like urban Austin soon

By: Daniel Salazar / Austin Business Journal

 

Like beauty, The Domain is in the eye of the beholder.

To many in the business community, the North Austin development is a local and national mixed-use success story that sets a high bar for employment and retail centers.

But, to some Austinites, it missed opportunities to be truly walkable, light on parking and integrated into the surrounding area.

And anti-development advocates use The Domain as an epithet to oppose new construction in their neck of the woods.

Whatever your view of this type of large-scale, mixed-use development, there’s more of it in the works.

The Domain continues to grow while several proposed projects, both in Austin’s core and on its fringes, draw comparisons to The Domain when they are floated to the public, criticized by opponents or covered by media, including in this publication.

But does that characterization match what developers want to do on the ground? And what does the spread of these “Domain-like” developments mean for Austin’s growth?

What’s in a Do-name

Opening in 2007, The Domain was first conceived as a high-tech office hub, hence the dot-com-era namesake referring to a website domain.

It has since grown to more than 300 acres and has offices for major employers such as Amazon, Facebook, Vrbo and Indeed. Add in the thousands of apartments, more than 1.8 million square feet of retail space and multiple hotels and it’s easy to see why The Domain is the elephant in the room when discussing large mixed-use projects in Central Texas.

California-based Mark IV Capital wants to build The District in Round Rock — a $200 million development near I-35 and State Highway 45 that was covered as “Domain-style” when it was first proposed in 2017 and as “Domain-like” when plans moved forward earlier this year.

 

The District in Round Rock

In late 2017, these renderings of the project were publicized. Here’s a night-time look at The District, which developers envision having a 24/7 vibe that appeals to millenials.

This spring, Cedar Park officials welcomed the unveiling of the proposed Indigo Ridge development, a 155-acre project, as the city’s retort to The Domain in the competition for high-quality office space. Indigo Ridge could eventually be worth up to an eye-popping $1.5 billion.

Less than a month later, Pflugerville’s mayor introduced the roughly 120-acre NorthPointe project by Negba Group LLC as something that could be similar to The Triangle in North Austin or, you guessed it, The Domain.

But the “Domainization” of the way we talk about mixed-use projects isn’t limited to the suburbs. The 4700 East Riverside project by Nimes Capital LLC and Presidium Group LLC just southeast of downtown is sometimes dubbed the “Domain on Riverside” — particularly by the activists rallying against it.

Branding aside, why is this type of project becoming more common in Central Texas?

The answer from developers typically involves the familiar phrase of live-work-play — potential residents seek out apartments and condos in a housing-hungry market; employers look to lock down office space in areas rich on stuff to do for their workers; and customers get drawn to bars, restaurants and retail establishments within a short distance of one another.

The appeal and interplay of residential, commercial and office components help create a desirable area to shoppers, businesses and residents alike.

Cedar Park Economic Development Director Ben White said mixed-use projects will remain important to the region because they give employers an opportunity “to have a home base for their workers.”

“That makes it easier to retain a lot of these employees,” White said.

Mark IV Capital CEO Paul Cate said mixed-use projects can also appeal to people interested in shorter commutes that avoid the region’s highway bottlenecks and traffic congestion, a source of ire for many in the Austin area.

“Where you have employers that are looking to hire people, they can differentiate themselves by offering a shorter commute to their employees,” Cate said. “You’ve got a winning mix.”

“That’s why you’re seeing the suburbs start having those projects come online,” he said.

Likely to come up ‘in every conversation’

If you’re trying to build a large mixed-use project in the Austin area, The Domain will get name-dropped.

“We try to stay away from [mentioning] it,” said Tomas Sheleg, Negba’s New York-based developer for NorthPointe in Pflugerville. “But sometimes we trip on that and it kind of comes up in every conversation. … It still sets a benchmark for demand and for quality and for pricing.”

Justin Basie, a Mark IV Capital regional vice president working on The District in Round Rock, said comparisons to The Domain make sense because of that project’s success.

“It’s always an easy corollary … shorthand to say, ‘we’re Domain-like,'” Basie said. “It instantly wraps peoples’ minds around elements of mixed-use rather than having … to spend [the] subsequent number of sentences to try and define exactly what that is.”

Cate added that The Domain’s design as a standalone development means it’s easier for people to picture where its boundaries begin and end.

“If it was downtown and it was a mixed-use project … it wouldn’t be as defined,” he said.

Jed Buie, a partner at communications firm Buie & Co., called The Domain “transformative” for North Austin, in regard to employment and amenities.

“They are a high watermark, in terms of a lot of great things a development can offer,” Buie said. “For all of those positives, you want to be associated with something like The Domain.”