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A Development Project With a Silver Lining

The Rebekah Baines Johnson Center is about to be part of an ambitious master planned community for Austin seniors.

By Amy Smith, Fri., July 11, 2014

The RBJ Residential Center east of I-35, on Lady Bird Lake's north shore
The RBJ Residential Center east of I-35, on Lady Bird Lake's north shore
Photo courtesy of RBJ

A lone residential tower that stands alongside I-35 just east of Downtown is about to be part of an ambitious master-planned community for Austin seniors.

The Rebekah Baines Johnson Center, located on 18 acres of prime real estate on the north shore of Lady Bird Lake, is currently home to low-income seniors whose average age is 78. About 20% of the residents have disabilities but are able to enjoy living independently. The best part about there, besides the location? Residents pay less than $500 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, while "market-rate" apartments run for just under $600. The affordability is largely thanks to the board of the nonprofit Austin Geriatric Center Inc., which operates the center and strives to live up to the goals of the facility's visionary – President Lyndon B. Johnson. The center, built in 1972, is named in honor of Johnson's mother.

The good news is that the existing residents won't be forced to look for housing elsewhere while the master-planned community takes shape. The residents will, however, be relocated nearby to a brand new 250-unit apartment building, once it's constructed, while the residential tower undergoes renovation and retrofits – including fire sprinklers – to comply with modern-day code. The Geriatric Center's board has agreed to honor the wishes of those residents who want to move back to the tower once the work is done, but the logistics of how and when that will be carried out is uncertain.

"The No. 1 priority was to take care of our residents and our seniors, and that continues to remain a priority," said board Vice Chair Paul Saldaña, adding that a representative of the residents' council as well as members of the East Cesar Chavez Neigh­borhood Planning Team have been actively involved in the master-planning process.

Once completed, the campus will feature 500 units of senior housing – 250 of them for low-income seniors – plus 340 units of mixed-income apartments and condos, and 25,000 square feet of commercial space. Additionally, the new development will feature indoor and outdoor gathering spaces with new connective pathways to the Edward Ren­don Sr. Park at Festival Beach. The board recently selected a team of local developers to redevelop the site; they include South­west Strategies Group, Momark Develop­ment, and DMA Devel­op­ment Co. LLC.

To help finance the estimated $200 million project, the board is selling two to three acres for a mixed-use market rate development. The proceeds of that sale will go toward infrastructure costs and to help pay for the new 250-unit affordable complex for seniors. Other funding will come from affordable housing tax credits, general obligation bond dollars from the most recent city bond election for affordable housing, and about $1 million from the Grayco Partners development on East Riverside – the RBJ Center was the beneficiary of a "fee in lieu" that the Grayco developers paid to the city's affordable housing fund, Saldaña said.

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