Monica Maldonado Williams: Selling Statesman HQ

Photo courtesy Scott Beale / www.LaughingSquid.com

Photo courtesy Scott Beale / LaughingSquid.com

Why it probably doesn’t matter that the Statesman has a building

Newspaper headquarters are not just office buildings; they can be part of a city’s identity, part of its architectural heritage and even a symbol for social justice and civic engagement.

Not so much for the Austin American-Statesman building. It may not be the icon of great journalism that other cities have had, but maybe it’s hard for a people to develop a relationship with a building they can hardly see from the road.

Nestled under the Congress Avenue Bridge at the bottom of a rise on Congress Avenue, the Statesman building may best be known as the place from which to view the bats. Most people couldn’t tell you what the building looks like from the outside much less the inside. There are the loading docks and trucks on its south side and somewhere around the north side is the main entrance, but that’s about all you could remember if someone pushed you.

So hearing the news last week that the Statesman’s parent company, Cox Media Group, had decided to close its printing operations there was disquieting, but not so much because of the “demise of journalism” as it was another sign that, in Austin now, the Statesman doesn’t make the news, developers do.

Here’s the sad truth: The Statesman building is worth less than the dirt it sits on.

Photo courtesy Gary J Wood/FlickrCC

Photo courtesy Gary J Wood/FlickrCC

Remember, this is nearly 19 acres of scenic lakeshore land near South Congress Avenue and Barton Springs Road, where more than 100,000 people a year gather to watch bats and where we park to visit the gorgeous new expansion of the Boardwalk portion of Butler Trail around Lade Bird Lake. It’s where the quintessentially Austin South Congress culture actually begins. In 2009, when Cox toyed with the idea of selling the property, it was valued at $250 million. What do you think that would be worth now?

So far, no person or group has started a petition to save it.

Think of Chicago’s iconic Chicago Sun-Times building, low-slung and squat, gray and dilapidated-looking almost as soon as it went up. In a city where architecture is a source of pride, the Sun-Times building was given a pass because of the historic journalism that happened inside. No one started a petition to save that one either, but it was still a little heartbreaking in 2004 when Donald Trump purchased the building and replaced it with a 98-story hotel. When the building started construction, many saw a bit of the old Sun-Times building in the new architecture. Nope, said Trump’s people. That’s the parking garage.

Here’s the good news for those of you who might harbor some pre-nostalgia for the Statesman building: You can still take a tour of the inside. Take the kids. It will be like taking them to one of those old-timey candy factories, maybe. Or avoid the traffic and just take the tour online, as I did. Fascinating.

Cox may be shipping press operations to San Antonio and the remaining 250 or so employees may wind up in North Austin, but the real change at the Statesman started years ago. Let’s not be materialistic about it. The Statesman building may be worth millions but the real value of the Statesman is in its content. And you don’t need riverfront property for that.

Monica Maldonado Williams is the director of GivingCity Austin, a nonprofit, online magazine on a mission to increase philanthropy and social engagement.

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