Southern Exposure

The 'Renaissance' of Far South Austin Pushes Upscale Development South of Stassney

Annabelle Torrez and Hugh Moore worry that a proposed 500-unit condominium complex  will destroy the rural character of their South Austin neighborhood.
Annabelle Torrez and Hugh Moore worry that a proposed 500-unit condominium complex will destroy the rural character of their South Austin neighborhood. (Photo By John Anderson)

One sweltering afternoon a couple of weeks ago, three South Austin neighbors -- Hugh Moore and Mike and Annabelle Torrez -- made their way through a tangle of brushy scrub, past a few old tires, a rusted car frame, and a cactus plant blooming defiantly under a merciless sun. They came to a stop at the edge of an empty pond. "It's been dry for a while now," Mike Torrez said, pointing to a large, dusty crater. "But there's a guy who lives over there who sets out tubs of water for the deer."

Deer? In South Austin? "I heard one snort the other day," Torrez said. "So I know they're still back here." The trio set off again across the rustle and crunch of dry tinder, and their conversation turned to something of greater concern: A 500-unit condominium project is planned for this 48-acre spread of vacant land that their neighborhood has grown up around over the past 30 years. Moore and the Torrezes, longtime residents of the Cherry Creek subdivision, are part of a core group of South West Austin Neighborhood Association representatives opposed to the size and scope of the new condo subdivision, to be built between Manchaca and West Gate Boulevard, just south of West Stassney Lane.

As developers see it, the vacant property is the proverbial hole in the doughnut, waiting to be filled. As the neighbors see it, the site plan doesn't follow the spirit of the original 1980 plan, which called for a sort of mini-Sun City for "mature" adults -- until it was scrapped altogether when the real estate bust hit in the late Eighties. This time around, the buildings are taller -- three stories -- and the condos, at least initially, will be leased to tenants instead of sold to individual owners. The residents, meanwhile, are weighing their limited options while the developer, CNC Investments, and its local representative, Bury and Partners, are finishing a revised site plan to be submitted to the planning department in the next week or so. At any rate, they don't expect to break ground on the project until next spring.


DDZ'd and Confused

No matter how the project shakes out, the neighbors have accepted the fact that the property will be developed. On a broader scale, there are similar vacant tracts scattered all across this sleepy corner of South Austin, meandering from West Gate to I-35, and from U.S. 290 to just south of Stassney. Those properties, too, will be slated for development, if they haven't been already.

Why the sudden attraction to an area of town that served, in its natural state, as the nondescript centerpiece of Richard Linklater's Suburbia? Because this land of aging strip centers, vacant lots, scrap dealers, and fix-a-flat shops is now prized ground for developers angling to make some money off the city's newly designated Desired Development Zones.

For decades, the landscape has stood as gray and unchanging as cobwebs. But suddenly, residents are seeing their neighborhood change from status-quo funky to middle-America gentrified. All this fast and furious change is hard for the old-timers to accept. "This is the first time we've been inundated all at once," longtime SWANA co-president John D. Gamble complained the other day. "There's construction all over the place."

It's true: Not since the Sixties and Seventies has this sector seen such a frenzy of site work, construction trucks, and traffic. Consider these recent and ongoing enterprises:

Developers have discovered far South Austin in a big way.  New projects include:
<p>

1.	Westgate Mall, where HEB Central Market led a renewal effort.
<p>

2.	Lowe's and Albertson's anchor Trammell Crow's power center at I-35 and Stassney.
<p>

3.	Also Trammell Crow: a 270,000-square-foot center : largely restaurants.
<p>

4.	Another Trammell Crow planned development: a 528-unit apartment complex.
<p>

5.	Regal Metropolitan Theatre
<p>

6.	Falcon Ridge, a new upscale apartment complex, is already 97% leased.
<p>

7.	The 500-unit Independence Park Condominiums are planned to cover 48 acres of what is now scrub brush and tinder, stretching from Manchaca to West Gate Blvd.
Developers have discovered far South Austin in a big way. New projects include:

1. Westgate Mall, where HEB Central Market led a renewal effort.

2. Lowe's and Albertson's anchor Trammell Crow's "power center" at I-35 and Stassney.

3. Also Trammell Crow: a 270,000-square-foot center : largely restaurants.

4. Another Trammell Crow planned development: a 528-unit apartment complex.

5. Regal Metropolitan Theatre

6. Falcon Ridge, a new upscale apartment complex, is already 97% leased.

7. The 500-unit Independence Park Condominiums are planned to cover 48 acres of what is now scrub brush and tinder, stretching from Manchaca to West Gate Blvd.

  • Real estate big wheel Trammell Crow Co. is making huge inroads in retail and residential developments along I-35 and Stassney, which TCC has christened Stassney Heights. The developer recently opened a Lowe's and Albertson's-anchored "power center" on the northwest corner of the area, and is currently laying the groundwork across the street, on the southwest corner, for an additional 270,000 square feet slated to house some chain restaurants unheard of in these parts: Chili's, Romano's Macaroni Bar and Grill, Logan's Roadhouse, and Luby's cafeteria. Those are a far cry from the family-owned taco stand on wheels in the parking lot of the Conoco gas station, just a little ways up the road.

  • On the residential side, Trammell Crow is in the permit-approval process for a 528-unit Class A apartment complex south of the restaurant site, behind the new Regal Metropolitan Theatre. "This area has been overlooked for so long," said Bob Buzbee, division partner for Trammell Crow Residential. "But there's a lot of demand for housing close to downtown, and this is a great alternative to Cedar Park and U.S. 183."

  • The Falcon Group, a Houston-based development company, was the first to explore residential territory on Stassney Lane, between I-35 and South Congress. The group laid down stakes on old ranchland once owned by Austin's Goodnight family. The end result -- the upscale Falcon Ridge -- is now 97% leased, mostly to folks in the high tech industry. "Every developer and his dog was working in Northwest Austin," explained Richard Anderson of the Falcon Group, "so we decided to take a gamble on Stassney, and it's really paid off. It's just been sheer luck. What you see along I-35 and Stassney is just a classic example of how the gambling starts."

    (But wait. There's an old, rambling house a couple of blocks away that's been an odd bet in the residential market for years. Every once in a while, the owners will post a large, crude, spray-painted sign that reads: Rooms for Rent, followed by a phone number. It's that simple.)

  • Central Market made the first leap onto this largely unexplored turf last spring when it opened its doors to the masses in South Austin. The gourmet grocer revamped the hopelessly forgotten Westgate Mall, at U.S. 290 near West Gate, adding a trendy façade and specialty shops. The venture turned out to be a huge hit, drawing weekend crowds from as far as Dripping Springs and Marble Falls.

    Condomania?

    What's next for this neck of South Austin? Most likely the Independence Park Condominiums, the 48-acre complex between Manchaca and West Gate. Charlie Yalamanchili, the Houston-based developer and president of CNC Investments, believes he's picked the perfect location for his project. "It's close to downtown, the airport, Motorola ... and it's conveniently located close to a school" -- Crockett High, just northeast of the site. Yalamanchili and Jim Knight, the Bury and Partners engineer on the project, say they've made numerous concessions to try and keep the neighbors happy, such as extending the setback of the 20 three-story buildings to 150 feet from existing property lines; leaving natural buffer intact; sparing at least 1,000 trees; and setting aside about 15 acres of the northwest section of the tract (including the natural pond that is now bone dry) as a conservation easement for nearby residents. "We've gone above and beyond the code," says Knight.

    That's not good enough for the neighbors, who take issue with the condo zoning for the project when the development, on paper at least, seems more akin to an apartment complex. But as Tran Lackey of the city's planning department explained it, the owner of a condo project has the legal option to rent the units instead of selling them.

    Neighbors feel further hamstrung by the fact that the site plan requires only administrative approval because the existing zoning for condominiums was established long ago. The residents say their letters to City Council members -- who will likely never see this particular case cross their desks -- have so far gone unanswered. SWANA's Gamble doesn't really expect a reply. "This council," he said, "has gone from being neighborhood-oriented to business-oriented. I suspect the neighborhood will lose on this one. All we can do is keep harassing them." end story

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