Naked City

Austin Stories

If it seems like the windows at the downtown Brown Lofts (in the Brown Building at Seventh and Colorado) have been looking awfully dark lately, it's not your imagination. According to one resident, a tenant who was asked to leave when units at the Brown went up for sale last November (his lease runs out this month), sales have been slower than the building's marketers anticipated -- so slow, says the resident, that the place has become practically vacant over the last several months. Empty? The "historic, legendary, cool" lofts that were supposed to kick-start the gentrification -- er, revitalization -- of Austin's soon-to-be-thriving downtown? According to the resident, "there are moveouts almost every day. … There's no one living there any more." No wonder: Had this resident decided to buy his loft -- a 637-square-foot model which sells for between $165,000 and $225,000 -- his mortgage (including $203 a month in homeowners association fees in addition to the price of his parking spot) would have been nearly double his current monthly payment of around $1,200. Add to that the lately astronomical water bills, which shot up from 15 or 20 bucks to a whopping $85 last month thanks to a billing system that distributes costs among all Brown residents, and it's easy to see why people would clear the place now, rather than jump in for the long haul.

Melissa Sowden, a marketing assistant at the Brown, says around 20 of the building's 90 units are under contract, including eight that were bought by former tenants. Although sales have slowed somewhat, Sowden says, she expects the lofts to keep selling "because the Brown Building's a lot more affordable for people who want to live downtown." So take heart -- even if your stocks are in the tank, and the trust fund doesn't come due for another couple of years, you, too, can buy a piece of downtown's most affordable luxury.

On the other hand, why not go for the best? The planned Four Seasons Residences, on the other end of downtown at Trinity and Cesar Chavez, still has 72 units available as of early March, out of 129 total. Four Seasons developer Art Carpenter says contracts have been sent to 57 people who made reservations starting late last year, but "some … have made the decision not to move" on the deals, which require a 20% down payment, because of the economic downturn.

Robert Barnstone, a partner in the luxury Nokonah condos at Ninth and Lamar (price range: $190,000 to $2.7 million), points out that unlike the Nokonah, which secured contracts and down payments on 69 of its 95 units before ever breaking ground, many downtown developers are finding it hard to secure financing with less than 80% of their units presold -- which Barnstone calls "a polite way of saying no." And he adds that as prospective buyers get skittish about plunking down the hundreds of thousands of dollars it costs to live in 78701 (average price at the Four Seasons: $950,000), they may start balking at closing on deals that could cost them tens of thousands if they back out further down the road.

"Separating the wheat from the chaff and the fluff from the real stuff is kind of important," Barnstone says. "Whether a project has actually commenced construction is huge. Whether a project has financing and whether you've broken ground is huge." Currently, the Four Seasons -- whose signs until recently still promised a November 2000 groundbreaking -- is working to secure its construction loan from the Bank of America, and hopes to break ground sometime in April. Four Seasons rep Shelly Rosales says because the typical Four Seasons buyer tends to be wealthy, older, and not heavily invested in the dot-com market, FSR developers aren't too concerned about the impact of the recent crash. "Our buyers do not meet the profile of people tied to the high tech market. Our typical buyer is a lot more mature." But if their money, as with many of the wealthy, is in stocks, we're guessing they'll have to think long and hard about plunking down a $200,000 down payment for a condo that won't be finished until some time in late 2002…

Speaking of downtown vacancies, Intel officials have agreed to meet next week with downtown boosters and neighborhood reps to discuss the company's decision to halt construction on their 10-story building at Fourth and San Antonio. "It's nice of them to meet with us after the fact," quipped one downtown gadfly, who's not at all pleased with the unsightly concrete shell Intel has left behind. The meeting is at 1:30pm, Wednesday, March 28, at 608 W. Fifth, the former site of the Isuzu dealership offices…

State Rep. Ron Wilson flies again! The Houston Democrat, whose Southwest Houston district is so copacetic that he has time to screw with Austin instead of dealing with problems back home, has again filed a bill to reopen the former Mueller Airport as a state-owned facility for small plane owners like himself (and House Speaker Pete Laney, and former Speaker Bill Clayton, chair of the State Aircraft Pooling Board). The move would spell doom for the city's Mueller redevelopment plans, and the Federal Aviation Admini-stration doesn't much like the idea either. In the other chamber, Sen. Ken Armbrister of Victoria, a veteran water-carrier for the Austin-bashing brigades, has filed a companion bill. No fiscal notes yet, but it would be fun to see legislators who can't fund teacher health insurance or fair wages for prison guards explain how they intend to pay for a private airport. The Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition's open letter to the relevant Lege committees charmingly asks for "the respect, consideration, and deference you would expect the Legislature to show toward the constituents of each of your own districts."...

Thanks to a marathon March 1 City Council meeting at which council members took on Dorothy Turner and Hyde Park Baptist Church in back-to-back hearings, the proposed street connectivity ordinance scheduled for a public hearing that Thursday was pushed back to today, March 22. The proposal, backed by several former planning commissioners and Capital Metro, would require that all new subdivisions feature shorter blocks, fewer cul-de-sacs, and greater "connectivity," which means fewer gigantic arterials (like Parmer) and more small streets (like, say, 41st) connecting to local destinations like stores, churches, and parks. The usual suspects opposing the ordinance include the Real Estate Council of Austin and the Capitol Area Builders Association, whose respective representatives wrote letters to the mayor, city manager, and city planning department imploring them not to make the proposals mandatory. City staff agreed, proposing an alternative voluntary compliance system that would reward developers who stick to the proposals with incentives, fee waivers, and other now-familiar goodies. We'll see how this turns out next week, when the council votes on the proposals…

It's been nearly 10 years since Hyde Park resident Julie Koziol started complaining to Hyde Park Baptist leadership that their surface parking lot on Speedway was dumping water into her back yard, and the church leaders still haven't responded to their neighbor's requests that they build a retaining wall on their property, which backs up to Koziol's house on Avenue F. Koziol sued the church in early 1999, but the case has never made it to court; after two years, she says, "they're still stringing me along." "Basically, I want them not to put another drop of water on my property," says Koziol, whose back yard is full of water after months of rain. "I'm also looking for damages for using my back yard as a retention pond." Koziol's case is tentatively scheduled to go to court some time in June…

Economist Edward Herman, who co-wrote Manufacturing Consent with Noam Chomsky, will speak at UT about his "propaganda model" of understanding news, which he says helps explain why contemporary news so closely reflects the interests of the rich and powerful. Herman, the author or editor of 22 books on economics, foreign policy, and media, will speak Thursday, March 29, at 7pm in the Bass Lecture Hall in Sid Richardson Hall at UT. For more info, call or e-mail Bob Jensen at 471-1990 or rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Brown Lofts, Brown Building, Melissa Sowden, Four Seasons, Art Carpenter, Robert Barnstone, Nokonah, Shelly Rosales, Intel, Ron Wilson, Mueller Airport, Bill Clayton, Ken Armbrister, Mueller Neighborhoods Coalition, street connectivity, Real Estate Council, Capitol Area

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