By the time he was 12 years old, Mike Novak had the skills to build a brick fireplace by hand the way he was taught by his grandparents, masonry craftsmen who immigrated from Europe to South Texas. Construction sites are like a second home to him.
More than five decades later, a block from Novak’s fourth-floor office in Austin, excavators chip away limestone and the ground rattles beneath his boots as the San Antonio businessman oversees one of the largest construction sites of his career: an $895 million redevelopment of the State of Texas Capitol Complex.
Plans for the complex, funded by the 85th Legislature four years ago but part of discussions since 1944, will add 1.5 million square feet to the complex in four new buildings, consolidate state agencies, and reshape Congress Avenue into a walkable greenbelt, similar to the National Mall.
This is the job site Novak surveys today.
As executive director of the Texas Facilities Commission (TFC), Novak is responsible for the day-to-day management of the agency, including construction of phase one of the project, which began last year and is expected to be completed in 2022.
TFC builds, supports, and manages over 28 million square feet of state-owned and leased facilities for all other agencies across Texas. The agency manages state-owned parking garages in downtown Austin, use of the buildings for filming requests, and even the tailgating spots for University of Texas football games.
Seven commissioners have oversight responsibility for the agency. Appointed by former House Speaker Joe Straus in 2011, Novak served as a commissioner before the others asked him to step into the CEO-like role last year.
Initially reluctant to take the job, Novak eventually realized the importance of what he was being asked to do.
“I’ve always committed myself and a big part of my time in public service – always have,” he said. “And [the Capitol Complex] is a legacy program. It needs help. I’ve got the skill sets to do it. This is what I need to be doing.”
A 1975 graduate of St. Mary’s University, Novak was 28 years old when he started his own general contracting firm. The business grew, with Novak leading the expansions and renovations of many San Antonio landmarks, including the McNay Art Museum, Trinity Baptist Church, the Tobin Branch Library, the Majestic Theatre, and construction of the SeaWorld administrative offices.
Later, Novak formed a design-build firm specializing in high-tech telecom and air traffic control radar facilities, and founded the Novak Group, a construction management and energy solutions firm
But Novak’s record in public service is perhaps how he’s best known in his hometown. Novak served as Bexar County commissioner (Pct. 4) from 1995 to 1998. He chaired the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce in 2004 and has had various leadership and board roles over the years.
“Once you’ve kind of done that tour of duty, you’re never off the hook,” Novak said.
Public service is Novak’s way of bringing meaning to his life. “When I started my first company at 28, [I was] hell-bent for success. I want to make ‘this’ much money by ‘this’ age and ‘this’ much money by ‘this’ age,” he said.
“And I reached a point in my early 30s where I had to make a very personal decision and commitment to myself and to my family. That is, I knew that someday when I reached the end of the road … I want to be able to reflect back on my life and my career and measure my success by more than how much money that I made.”
Deeply spiritual, Novak also recites a Bible verse that says a person’s gifts and talents should be shared with others. “So I’ve always carved out a piece of my total universe of time for that purpose,” he said.
Novak eventually accepted the offer to become TFC executive director and moved into his office a year ago. He planned to commit three years to the job and see the Capitol Complex project through phase one.
The goal of the project is to reduce the cost of leased office space for state agencies throughout Austin and provide more capacity. It is estimated phase one will retire over $15 million in annual lease expenses for the state; phase two will retire another $10 million.
The project is also expected to improve the connection between the complex and the surrounding business and cultural institutions, and create pedestrian-friendly streets and civic spaces in the Capitol District.
“It’s not just a project – it is a transformational re-imagining of our entire Capitol Complex,” Novak said. “I don’t think that there has been anything this transformational maybe since the Capitol was built.”
In the year since the project began, immense quarries have appeared in Austin’s urban landscape. Where cars and people once moved up and down North Congress Avenue, now workers and heavy equipment are extracting rock to make space for underground parking and utilities on three major new structures.
Cranes Along the Skyline
On a recent morning when the Rivard Report toured the site with a TFC spokeswoman, a bulldozer said to be the largest in the world scraped at the rock 65 feet below street level while a steady stream of haulers carried it up and away.
The pounding, dust-laden site is a hive of machinery and hardhats in the shadow of the Bullock Texas State History Museum, where yellow buses carrying groups of schoolchildren arrive for field trips.
Phase one of the project, which includes the construction of two state office buildings housing various agency employees, three blocks of the Texas Capitol Mall, underground parking, and the expansion of the Sam Houston Building physical plant, will be complete in 2022. Phase two, approved for funding during the last legislative session, will take the project up to the steps of the domed Capitol.
“In one year, we have made huge progress because when I stepped into this role, I didn’t have much notice,” Novak said. “I [arrived] in November and we walked right into a [legislative] session in January. That’s chaos.”
As the TFC’s executive director, Novak had to get appropriations funding for the agency, and shepherd bills through the Legislature that would give approval for the second building in the complex.
Tower cranes now crisscross the skies above that part of downtown Austin. Near the Capitol Complex, the Employee Retirement System of Texas has its own project underway, and a few blocks away, UT is building a new $338 million basketball arena.
With roads blocked, parking closed, and wayfinding signs needed to direct pedestrians around construction fencing, the logistics and coordination among those involved is an enormous task for the agency around the clock.
On weekdays, Novak leaves his home on the far North Side of San Antonio at 5 a.m. for the daily drive to Austin, arrives at his office by 6:15 a.m., then works until mid-afternoon when he gets back in his car for the drive home.
“By that time, you’ve put it a full day anyway and you miss the afternoon rush hour, but it’s still busy,” he said. “Shame on San Antonio if we ever let our transportation and our traffic issues get as bad as Austin. I mean, it is absolutely a train wreck here.”
‘Earn Your Reputation’
Soon after starting the TFC job, and even while a commissioner, Novak grappled with what to do with a property in his own backyard: the state-owned G.J. Sutton complex on San Antonio’s East Side, which was demolished in August.
“But I think, at the end of the day, people … will look back on what a key piece it’s going to play in the economic development of that area and they’re going to [say] this was the right thing to do.”
In his role as executive director, Novak also sought to change the culture within the commission. In 2017, the Austin American-Statesman reported on an investigation that found the agency’s personnel practices allowed people to benefit from personal or political connections to its then-executive director.
“My first day here, I told all of our different divisions, ‘This is about you, not about me,’” he said, and he chose to display photos of groups of employees on the back wall of his spacious but spare office instead of his own awards or mementos. “I’m here to serve you. I’m here to make you successful and this agency successful.”
Overlooking the Capitol Complex site from an upper floor of a nearby parking garage, Novak eyed the massive project, then pointed out the TFC flag swinging beneath a crane.
“[Businessman] Red McCombs is a mentor,” Novak said, “and once said to me, ‘Mike, you gotta promote your brand but earn your reputation every day.’”