Dead End for Wilson Street

Redevelopment brings the axe to Wilson Street bungalows

Dead End for Wilson Street
Photo by Jana Birchum

Three years after mothballing plans for a new condo and duplex development on an expansive tract in South Austin's Dawson neighborhood, landowner/developer Mitch Ely is now ready to move forward with the project. That's bad news for the current residents, many of them musicians who enjoy cheap rent in exchange for the dilapidated state of the rental cottages and apartments that occupy the Wilson Street site. (See "Suspended in Time," Aug. 13, 2010.)

On Nov. 1, dozens of residents received notices to vacate the property by the end of November; now they're scrambling to find places to live that are both central and affordable for people earning meager wages. Sadly, the new development will eliminate a historically and culturally rich haven for musicians and artists, whose residents over the years have included members of the Gourds and the Damnations, former Faces bassist Ronnie Lane, Scrappy Jud Newcomb, and blues legend Miss Lavelle White, who moved out earlier this year. Current residents include Charlie Faye, Will Sexton, Jess Klein, Darwin Smith, and Barbara K, formerly of Timbuk 3, who had just recently taken temporary shelter at the apartments. "I think it's the end of an era," she wrote in an email last week to a Chronicle staffer. Two other residents had only moved in two months ago, according to Faye, and while it was understood they were on a month-to-month lease, they had no idea they would live there for only three months.

While Faye and boyfriend Sexton are trying to land a place farther south, Faye is also facing a very tight deadline to relocate and store six of the cottages as part of an agreement she struck three years ago with Ely, through his agent Mike McHone. Local nonprofit Design Build Alliance jumped on board to help find a site for the cottages, which would serve as the foundation for building an affordable residential hub for Austin's creative community. But the dream of preserving the cottages as part of a new housing community lost its momentum when the recession forced Ely to postpone his project, meaning the cottages had to stay put as rental property, adding further deterioration to structures that three years ago were deemed salvageable.

Now, Ely wants Faye to move the cottages from the property by Dec. 15. "It's been suggested that we leave the cottages be and focus on a new project, with new houses, re-creating what was here at Wilson Street but without the constraints of this crazy timeline," Faye said. "I do think re-creating [Wilson Street] with new structures would be great, especially because I now know how hard it is to get any public partner involved when the structures are in such bad shape." The problem of trying to relocate the cottages is compounded by the fact that there's no place to store them until a suitable piece of property comes along.

Chris Krager of Design Build Alliance says that while preserving some of the Wilson Street housing stock appeared to be a realistic goal three years ago, the concept may not be so easily achieved today. The plan, he said, "went on the back burner instead of moving forward," and Ely's sudden rush to get the cottages off his property has created "an extremely short fuse that makes getting the cottages moved difficult if not impossible."

Faye is not ready to abandon the fight to retain a significant piece of Austin's music history, though she's admittedly frustrated. "I won't fight development – I know growth and development go hand in hand, but we also need to preserve what's wonderful about Austin's creative culture. It will take a lot of people coming together to make it happen, but if we could pull it off, it could show everybody what is possible."

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