Meeting Highlights Opposition to Riverside Development

Audience decries the "sham" public hearing and many aspects of the plan

Wednesday evening, March 27, city staff hosted a “community meeting” concerning the major redevelopment proposed for Riverside Drive/South Pleasant Valley Road. The event, held at the Boyd Vance Theatre of the Carver Museum, generated much more heat than light concerning the project, and those who spoke were unanimous in their opposition.

As Jerry Rusthoven begins to speak, "Defend Our Hoodz" blocks the stage (Photo by Michael King)

The need for community redesign in the Riverside area was tacitly acknowledged by the central Eastside venue for this forum – there currently aren’t adequate meeting spaces in the Riverside neighborhood to hold large public meetings. The focus last night was on the 97-acre Presidium Group-owned development proposed on three contiguous tracts framed by Lakeshore Blvd., South Pleasant Valley Road, and Riverside Drive. If the project eventually makes its way through the boards and commission and City Council approval, it would incrementally replace the current Ballpark and Quad West apartment complexes on the site, in a buildout that city staffers said might take 20 years in all.

According to those staffers (a group that included Jerry Rusthoven of Planning and Zoning, Zoning Case Manager Scott Grantham, Traffic Engineer Upal Barua, and several others), the project’s zoning application contemplates a “corridor mixed use” zoning, and under a density bonus application – allowing an increase in height from the currently allowed 60 feet to 160 feet, in return for income-restricted affordable housing – at full buildout the project would eventually include:

• 4,709 multi-family units

• 600 hotel rooms

• 4 million sq. ft. of office space

• 60,000 sq. ft of medical/dental office space

• 435,000 sq. ft. of commercial space (ground floor)

The presentation also included “Chapter 26” information (governing parkland under state law), because the previously approved corridor regulating plan requires the developer to extend Lakeshore Blvd. (currently ending at Pleasant Valley) to the east on an existing right-of-way just north of the development, and (as Barua explained), construction would require taking a “sliver” (11,000 sq. ft.) of additional Roy G. Guerrero parkland for the roadway. Some opponents on hand denounced that part of the project as taking public land for private profit, but the roadway plan predates the development by several years – it was contemplated in 2013 in the East Riverside Corridor Master Plan (and approved in the official regulating plan), as part of the city’s efforts to anticipate and improve neighborhood connectivity.

That nuance (and quite a few others) was mostly lost in the evening’s discussion, which was delayed for about 20 minutes from the scheduled 6pm start time, following brief opening remarks by Rusthoven. As he asked for “respect and civility,” “Defend Our Hoodz” protesters raised up banners denouncing the project and obstructing most of the stage. They shouted variations on “Gentrifiers – Shut it Down!,” then added some personal abuse directed at the developer’s attorney Michael Whellan (attending but not part of the formal presentation). Soon they declared the meeting now belonged to “the people” (i.e., DoH and its allies in the audience). Police arrived a few minutes later, and the Hoodz-sters were ushered out of the building (several who refused to leave were arrested). Their main contribution had been to constrain the time available for the now rushed presentations and subsequent audience feedback.

Following a brief description of the project and the roadway, most of the meeting was devoted to statements or questions from the audience of about 60 people (minus the DoH, and a few others who had quickly concluded they had better ways to spend their evening). All of the dozen or so speakers opposed the project, for various reasons. They said it will accelerate rising housing prices and displacement of current residents – in preference, said one, for “tech nerds” employed at nearby Oracle or other high-tech facilities – and would potentially threaten Guerrero Park.

Grantham and other staffers confined themselves to unadorned descriptions of the project and answering a few technical questions. Nevertheless, they were denounced for “selling” the proposal and accused of hosting a “sham” meeting – often by opponents who offered little more than denunciations. No one was on hand to speak for the future residents or new workers anticipated in those project numbers, and when one speaker asked, “What public benefits are provided by this project?,” the fairly obvious answer – thousands of badly needed housing units and related employment – hung silently in the air, unexpressed.

To the extent that notion was in the air at all, it was by negation, in denunciations of any need to replace and expand the aging apartment complexes already on the site. "And now you want to put more people there," complained one opponent. "It's horrible!"

Although potential displacement of the current residents was the predominant subject, the park issue generated steam from some opponents, who called it a land grab for the benefit of the developers. They were unpersuaded by engineer Barua’s insistence that the slice of parkland was necessary for the safety of the planned roadway. More particular objections came from members of the Waterloo Disc Golf Club and the Austin Ridge Riders (bicyclists), who worried that encroachment on the park will degrade the land and undermine their recreation. Since the existing city right-of-way – even without the the prospective “sliver” – appears to run directly through one section of what is currently parkland, that’s an argument that will inevitably land before the Parks Board, before it rises steadily toward Council. A couple of speakers also asked that it be subject to review from the Environmental Commission.

Staff review of the project continues, and the next formal public hearing is not yet scheduled. More information on the East Riverside Corridor Master Plan is available here.

Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle