Field of Dreams
In the last decade, city housing officials have learned the same lesson about subsidizing residential development in East Austin that many people are taught about giving to winos: Give food or clothing, but don't give them cash, because if you do
The city has shuttled millions in federal and local dollars to developers chasing dreams of affordable villas with the power to restore neighborhood vitality. Despite some small-scale successes, the public has come to associate city housing initiatives with black holes like Anderson Hill and Vision Village -- the first which fell way short of its promise, the second which never turned over a single clod of dirt.
Last week the City Council dared to hope again, giving the city housing office permission to make two more high-stake investments on the Eastside. This time, there will be no cash transfers to developers. Instead, the city is buying land -- more than 260 acres at a total cost of $4.5 million -- for housing developments in Northeast Austin. Housing officials have been making noise lately about acting as full partners in affordable housing construction, and it appears they mean to deliver on that promise. The city's own nonprofit Austin Housing Finance Corporation, for which the City Council serves as the governing board, will own the land and be responsible for hiring engineers and builders. The AHFC will lease out 4.5 acres at 1022 Clayton Lane for a 176-unit senior apartment complex, to which it will also contribute bond financing. But the potential showstopper is a planned mix of homes, apartments, commercial uses, and park development on 258 acres off Loyola Lane, adjacent to what might, after all these years, finally become Colony Park.
The city turned over surplus land for a senior apartment complex at Oak Springs and Tillery last year. But this is its first foray into the big leagues of real estate, in which the AHFC will play developer and hope to recoup a return on lot sales and leases. Funding for the purchase comes primarily from the $3 million housing acquisition fund Council Member Raul Alvarez wrangled from the council last year as a concession for not placing housing construction bonds on the 2000 bond ballot. "This is a signal the city has made that they really are concerned about the quality of life all around East Austin, and that they will invest in land and play a role to help in the production of housing," says Paul Hilgers, director of the city's office of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development.
Well, the city has certainly signaled its good intentions before, and lots of disappointment has followed. Has the housing office finally found a strategy that can land those castles in the air on the Eastside? Hilgers says the land for the Colony Park development comes equipped with advantages that give the project a fighting chance to succeed: It's already zoned, platted, and hooked up to water lines. The AHFC can bring more focus and development expertise to the project than private developers have in the past, Hilgers says, getting site plans through city red tape more efficiently.
If all else fails, Hilgers says, the neighborhoods at least get the park they've been demanding for years. As part of the development, the city plans to bring landscaping and a recreation center to Colony Park, which is now nothing more than a meadow of thistles and juniper. The area neighborhoods have been blessed with plenty of affordable housing in recent years -- some good, but a lot less than ideal, such as the double-wide encampment that sprawls across a treeless hillside off Loyola Lane -- but little else. Children are plentiful in the area, but recreational amenities are not, as evidenced by the basketball goals slung up along neighborhood streets.
Developer Haythem Dawlett, who owns the land the city is purchasing and who has constructed hundreds of entry-level homes and apartments in the area, says the city's park development plan is key to sparking new construction on the site. Dawlett adds that the city's strategy to absorb the upfront costs of development --the withering site approval process, for example -- will appeal to serious builders.
But whether the city can, as Hilgers believes, do a better job than private developers at creating a sustainable community in East Austin remains to be seen. The large mixed-use projects the city has been trying to nurture through its Traditional Neighborhood District (TND) ordinance are having a devil of a time getting off the ground. Dawlett himself recently scrapped a proposed TND in Southeast Austin. He says he briefly considered a TND on the site he's selling to the city, but says bankers aren't ready to get behind mixed-use developments.
Regardless how the city fares on this site, Mark Rogers, director of the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, says the city's willingness to invest in land for housing represents a major break from the past, when neighborhood development corporations couldn't get a dime of assistance from the city for buying lots. Rogers says he hopes the city will not pin its hopes on a large, head-turning deal this time, though. "In waiting for the big project to come along, they've ended up with cratered-out neighborhoods," says Rogers. "We took the small approach and rebuilt our neighborhood block by block."
This Week: The council takes a break this week, and won't meet again until Thursday, June 7, when they'll convene at the Conley-Guerrero Senior Activity Center, 808 Nile Street. That week, expect more heated discussion on Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman's proposal to create a new Zoning and Platting Commission to deal with zoning cases; neighborhood planning, meanwhile, would become of the job of the newly reconstituted Planning Commission.