Prairie Fires

Dessau Road Burns With New Boom Fever

by Mike Clark-Madison

This story started out smelling like hay. From where it jumps Walnut Creek at Jourdans Crossing up toward its confluences with I-35 and Pflugerville's FM1825, Dessau Road is for the most part a rambling country track. Not wild luxury-car-commercial country like you see along City Park Road or other Westside drags, but real aggie hay-and-small-grains, cow-and-calf blackland prairie country.

It's not all agricultural land out here -- there's new Milburn homes, light industrial and commercial building, a famous roadhouse and a not-so-famous airport. But the farmsteads and ranch parcels define the landscape for this jurisdictional no man's land, a chunk of border country between the City of Austin, its extra-territorial jurisdiction (ETJ), and the incorporated limits of Pflugerville, one of our few suburbs.

This was once a stand-alone community called Dessau, of which little remains but the eponymous dance hall and an old Lutheran church and graveyard. "Last year, when I moved out here, it was way out in the country," says resident and Austin Executive Air Park tenant Mike Green. "There's still a lot of coyotes. But..."

There's always a "but." The self-reliant, land-equals-wealth, property-rights vibe that reigns in Texas is rooted in landscapes like that of old Dessau. Yet it's these same values, translated into our traditional laissez-faire urban and regional planning policies, that lead to such landscapes' destruction. The flip side of growth limits, metro government, disincorporations, compact cities, and other post-modern planning tenets is that borderlands like Dessau would remain low-density and rural, that there could actually be land-based industries within the metro limits. Such was the effect in California, where hard-edged, no-mess growth moratoria ensured that valuable acreage within the big metro areas remained planted to orchard crops for decades. (Now that the Golden State's boom has done busted, these limits are evaporating, and the old citrus ranches are turning into outlet malls.)

Moratoriums, especially on growth, hardly ever happen in Texas, and those who would craft a new Austin along a post-modern model need to take this into account. Currently, growth and boom are really hot topics along Dessau Road. The on-again, off-again mating ritual between Samsung Semiconductor and the City of Austin will, one assumes, someday be consummated, with a site along I-35 in Jourdans Crossing, just south of old Dessau.

The Korean conglomerate is one of many corporations looking to settle or expand in the North Austin growth corridor -- IBM with its 900 refugees from rat's-mouth Florida, Applied Materials, Advanced Micro Devices, Motorola, Apple Computer, and others still in the whisper stage. (It seems that many corporate-relocation specialists are currently "not at liberty to discuss" what they do with their days.)

Which means bonanza time for developers, realtors, and their satellite industries, especially those with an interest in Dessau. Other North Austin growth zones are nearing their full capacity. Leander doesn't have enough water, and new homeowners out there are looking at 45 minutes one-way into town, through two more decades of ghastly roadwork. Round Rock and Pflugerville proper are both groaning under the weight of new residents, and their school districts are having to double in size in one fell swoop, with a corollary jump in property taxes unless the tax base grows accordingly. Hence the lust for corporate development, which brings us back to Dessau, within the Pflugerville school district.

The Samsung near-deal may have already led to escalation in property values in the Jourdans Crossing area, say some observers, of as much as 15 to 20% -- with such increases becoming manifest once the firm formally announces its intentions. So other businesses and residential developers, with shallower pockets, are expected to look northward to Dessau for new homelands.

There is certainly plenty of land available. "Right across the road [from his subdivision] is a huge farm that raises and produces hay," says Richard Shelton, president of the Northtown Neighborhood Association, representing a Milburn development along the north side of Dessau Road East. "I'm sure he hasn't sold yet because they won't give him what he wants, or because they haven't figured out a way to subdivide it properly. There are two other parcels available between here and I-35; there's already 79 acres on the north side of the road zoned LI (light-industrial). There's definitely a lot of interest. I expect that in five years, the feeling [we're] in the country will be totally gone."

This scenario is probably turning some stomachs right now, either because you're a dove on growth or because you remember the last boom and its bust, which delivered a trauma to Austin from which we still haven't recovered. This boom is different, sort of, but much of Central Austin seems to think that any sensible soul would recoil from the prospect of developers let loose upon your neighborhood like wild hogs, doubling or tripling the density of your landscape and sending your property values into a spiral. These folks do not live along Dessau Road.

The comments of Texana Kowis, president of the Northtown Municipal Utility District (MUD) -- which serves most of the area east of I-35 between Braker Lane and the Pflugerville limit -- are typical. "We're definitely expecting and welcoming an increase in development within the MUD," she says. "We certainly hope there's a mix of residential and commercial users, and we're confident that our capacity will be adequate for development in the near term.

"Even before Samsung made its decision -- if they have indeed made a decision -- we made sure we were prepared to handle any increase," Kowis continues. "We're a very positive and hopeful board."

All you growth doves out there shouldn't infer that the Dessau denizens are suckers, bloodsuckers, or just don't get it. It would be more fair to call them realists. "Growth in the north part of town is a given," says Kirk Hays of Centerline Properties, owners/managers of the Austin Executive Air Park. "We have to view it as a positive when it relates to the area right around our airport."

As for residential property owners, says Shelton, "all of our homes have appreciated and will surely appreciate more. People who are relocating here won't have time to wait for a home to be built, and even out here, there's not going to be that many lots available. A resale -- especially of our houses, which are all about two years old -- is much more attractive." (Shelton adds that Milburn homes seem to be particularly desirable, given Bill Milburn's reputation for delivering the most square feet on the dollar.)

Even the venerable Dessau Hall, putatively the best example near Austin of an old-fashioned country roadhouse/ballroom, is betting on the future rather than the past. "The ballroom days are basically over as far as Dessau is concerned," says manager Gary Lees, who's worked since June under the hall's new ownership to revitalize the old venue. We still have Kings of Swing and Texas Hall of Fame and the square-dance music, but we're trying to get name bands in here and get the place happening again. If I bring in ballroom acts, I won't make any money."

One of Lees' particular concerns is echoed throughout the area -- the sorry state of Dessau Road itself. Because the roadway is totally inadequate for the traffic that's already there, many in Dessau indicate that they already suffer from the drawbacks of growth without realizing any benefits. "The road is so bad that it can take an hour to get through to here," says Lees. "People are concerned about how far they have to drive to get here, and especially how far they have to drive back into town when they're finished. We're hoping that if there's new industrial development and small business around here, that will help out the day-bar business."

Shelton notes that, after years of lobbying, the Northtown Neighborhood Association and its neighbors got improvements to Dessau Road built into the Austin Transportation Study metropolitan transportation plan for the next two fiscal years, just in time for growth fever to make such planning even more imperative. "You already back up 10 ro 12 minutes to get to the light past the airport," he says, "and it's even worse in the afternoons. That's not only inconvenient, but if there's the least little problem, you're in trouble because there's no shoulder. Last year a gentleman's boat trailer lost a wheel and he had to drive into the field, which started a grass fire -- the fire and ambulance service couldn't get through, so they had to go through the field, too." (Bill Milburn got out of paying for road expansion by electing not to build out a dozen lots in the Northtown subdivision.)

Presuming the road is improved, the transformation of old Dessau should proceed at a merry clip. The Executive Air Park has a long-range plan to be the city's main home of both general aviation (private planes) and corporate air traffic, with mixed-use development combining hangars with office space along the edges of the airport, where Centerline Properties already owns land.

Such an increase in the tax base tends to make city planning-and-development folks ravenous -- the city already claims the airport itself, but the bordering tracts along Dessau Road are ETJ, putting them in line for annexation. MUD president Kowis notes that "the city's said nothing to make us think we're on their list for the next five years, but we well understand that could change at any moment." She adds that current sentiment on the MUD board is to pursue a "strategic partnership" with the city, as outlined in the last legislative session's no-annexation Austin-bashing efforts.

Shelton comments that "it's going to become a more politically sensitive MUD real quick. It used to be that if one person ran [for a seat on the MUD board], they got elected. Now, it might actually become a heated race." There is a MUD election set for early next year. "Things will change a lot around here. It's hard to say how, but money makes people do strange things." n Next Time: I'm taking my act on the road, as you'll see in coming weeks; the next "Corner to Corner" is going to look at the Park-That-Never-Was on the Colorado, sometime before Thanksgiving. Keep those comments coming to Crnr2Crnr@aol.com.

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