Here Comes the Neighborhood
Capital Metro's Saltillo Project is just one (big) piece of a rapidly changing Eastside Corridor
All is quiet on a Sunday morning on the 11 acres of trash-strewn open space formerly called the rail yard, now more elegantly dubbed the Saltillo District. Not even the squawking of chickens in surrounding back yards disrupts the solitude, though one can always hear the whoosh of speeding cars on nearby I-35. Trailers are lined up north to south; aside from the tracks that still poke through both the paved streets and the brush, most of the signs that this was once a railroad corridor are long gone. On one block, a stack of broken wood lies with plastic soda bottles and other litter near the street. To the south of the next block is a junkyard with piles of discarded fans and metal furniture. The paint of a nearby graffiti mural depicting two cartoonish boys slowly chips away with age.
It's hard to imagine this empty, grassy, littered, deteriorating swath as a bustling hub for living, working, and traveling. But that's exactly what Capital Metro, city planners, and many neighbors aim to create. The transit authority, which owns the property, and the city hope the nascent Saltillo District Redevelopment Master Plan will scribble "prosperity" all over the blank slate bounded by I-35, Comal Street, and East Fourth and Fifth. The master plan -- named after Plaza Saltillo, the appealing but underused public space at the site's edge on Comal -- has as its goal a mixed-use project that is both affordable and respectful of the existing character of the surrounding Eastside.
That character is itself changing for a variety of reasons, including demographic shifts, new political leadership, and -- most importantly -- public and private efforts to develop housing, retail, and office space that inevitably will serve the entire Austin community, not just the barrio. Historically, not everyone has agreed on what the "neighborhood character" is, let alone should be. Or on much else. Which explains why the rail yard has been vacant and decrepit for decades after the city and Cap Metro first moved to acquire it. But now that redevelopment is actually happening, a different question has emerged: Will the current renaissance of redevelopment give the Eastside the economic boost it's been waiting for, or destroy the neighborhood forever?
In July, Cap Metro's board of directors will decide whether to award a contract to San Francisco-based ROMA Design Group -- the same consultants behind the city's Seaholm District and Mueller redevelopment plans -- to develop the Saltillo plan. The transit authority hasn't disclosed the identities of other bidders for the contract, worth between $100,000 and $250,000, but has put much energy into assuaging concerns among neighbors who feared a consultant would ignore their viewpoints on issues like gentrification. Simply planning the Saltillo request-for-proposals involved the most elaborate public-input process in the agency's history, says Sam Archer, Cap Metro's assistant director for community involvement and project co-manager of the Saltillo redevelopment plan.
Of ROMA and Rivalry
So far, so good. This time, there are no protesters picketing Capital Metro's headquarters on East Fifth claiming the transit authority is trying to destroy East Austin -- as there have been during previous efforts to redevelop the rail yard -- and the city is proving a willing partner to Cap Metro rather than an obstacle. "That we got the solicitation out the door with as much support as we did, given where we started," Archer says, "was a feat in itself."
But while the priorities of Cap Metro, the city, and the neighbors for now seem well aligned, they are not identical. With Saltillo, Cap Metro's main objective is to create a transit hub that one day might accommodate light rail. But many who live around the Saltillo District care more about job and training centers, affordable housing, and green spaces; not once did any resident I interviewed mention "accessibility" or "mobility." In the past, some neighbors have actively fought light rail, and the rest don't seem to consider it a primary goal, though that may be because voters have yet to approve it.
Rail is one issue that's brought to the surface decades of rivalry and animosity between Eastside neighborhood activists -- most famously between Lori and Sabino Renteria and their friends and allies in the United East Austin Coalition, and Paul Hernandez and Gavino Fernandez and their friends and allies in the El Concilio Coalition of Mexican-American Neighborhoods. A recent development that has significantly changed the neighborhood dynamic was Fernandez's arrest May 22 on charges of drug possession and aggravated assault; a federal investigation is in progress over related allegations that he was smuggling undocumented immigrants. Fernandez was denied bail because of a previous contempt-of-court charge and is currently serving 180 days in the Travis County Jail.
Lori Renteria and Fernandez were also, respectively, key leaders of the East Cesar Chavez and Holly neighborhood-planning teams; the two planning areas meet at Chicon Street, right in the middle of the Eastside rail corridor. While the Saltillo District itself lies within East Cesar Chavez, Cap Metro also owns property (including its headquarters) within Holly, and both areas have seen other new projects spring up along the corridor. (The division of the barrio into two planning areas was both a symptom and a cause of the ongoing neighborhood conflict. See "Twenty Years of Battle in the Barrio".)
In theory, East Cesar Chavez and El Concilio endorse the same basic vision for the Saltillo District and for the community: maintaining neighborhood character, promoting affordability and compatibility, keeping the streets safe and the schools functional, and ensuring that no public agency -- however friendly or well-intentioned -- tries to take over their neighborhoods. But they have strongly disagreed on the best strategy for achieving those ends, with ECC working within the system (they eagerly embraced neighborhood planning) and El Concilio frequently trying to subvert it (they loudly tried to shoot down the ECC plan when it went before the City Council). The scope and importance of Saltillo has imposed a somewhat uncertain truce on the bickering between the factions.
Eleven acres is not an enormous tract, but Saltillo's proximity to the central business district as well as the surrounding cultural and economic fabric make it an extremely important Austin project. Cap Metro bought the Saltillo property from the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1987, acquiring seven parcels as well as the tract that is now Plaza Saltillo, which the city has operated since it was finished in 1999. As part of the land deal, Cap Metro also purchased the right-of-way between Comal and Pedernales along East Fifth and two additional parcels.
The Corridor Livens Up
Aside from Saltillo, many other projects, both public and private, are either proposed or already under way along the corridor, including the 105-unit Pedernales Live/ Work Project, the 160-unit Villas on Sixth affordable-housing complex, and the El Nuevo Mercado mixed-use development, which will include retail, residential, and office space. On the public side, the city's East Seventh Street Corridor streetscape improvements, UT's new elementary charter school (opening this fall), and the Lance Armstrong Bikeway all will lend their influence to the corridor's character. Archer and other Cap Metro staff serve as de facto liaisons between their agency and representatives of the various projects, to share information and remain on the same page.
After years of combating citizen suspicions and frustrations, Capital Metro is very much into listening and dialogue these days. Archer emphasizes that the "tremendous" ECC neighborhood plan will serve as a foundation for the Saltillo project, although the planners -- presumably ROMA -- also need to heed the corridor's designation as a transit (i.e., rail) route in both the city and regional transportation plans. East Cesar Chavez "has done a lot of thinking about what happens in the neighborhood with a changing economic environment," Archer says.
The problem, he adds, has been reminding some ECC neighbors that they aren't the only stakeholders. At times, the agency has appeared a little too willing to open up the process to everyone in the barrio: Enabling El Concilio and Con Ganas (led by ECC defector Ray Ramirez) to sponsor community meetings on Saltillo without ECC's participation led to charges by Lori Renteria and other ECC leaders that Cap Metro was elbowing them out of the Saltillo planning. "I think there was the assumption that East Cesar Chavez would lead the project the whole way through," Archer opines. Relations have since gotten back on track.
In developing the Saltillo RFP, Cap Metro asked neighbors to suggest the boundaries of the project, what types of uses and amenities should be included, what elements the RFP should contain, and what kind of previous experience the chosen consultant should have. Responses to the RFP were reviewed by a five-member community evaluation team: El Concilio's Fernandez, ECC's Eric Ziegler, Con Ganas' Ramirez, PODER Executive Director Susana Almanza, and La Prensa Editor and Publisher Cathy Vasquez-Revilla. In the end, neither Fernandez nor Ziegler completed the team's review process, but both Cap Metro and other team members agree the process was beneficial -- particularly to the agency. "They don't want to go with a plan and have the community fight it," says Almanza.
On June 7, Cap Metro and the city co-sponsored the Feria de la Calle Cinco, an all-day festival at Plaza Saltillo that heralded a bright economic future for the Saltillo corridor. Featuring food, music, information booths, and a farewell to outgoing Mayor Gus Garcia, the feria -- which included participation from Fernandez, Vasquez-Revilla, and other community representatives -- drew hundreds of neighborhood residents to the plaza to catch up on news, eat tacos and fajitas, and learn about all of the projects under way in their corner of the city. The feria symbolized how Cap Metro and City Hall, after years of being at best strangers to one another, finally may have established a working partnership. Archer says he meets regularly with city planner George Adams, the designated Saltillo project co-manager, and city urban-design officer Jana McCann.
Friends at City Hall
"The overriding goal for the Saltillo District Redevelopment Project is to construct an exemplary, compact community," states Cap Metro literature. Making that happen will largely fall to City Hall, which has the planning and the economic policy tools to both shape Saltillo's design and infrastructure and to address Eastside neighbors' concerns about gentrification and out-of-control property taxes. "It's so important for Cap Metro to have such a strong partnership with both the city and the neighborhoods," Archer says. "Without that strong alliance, we might miss some things that the community is really looking for and some things the city can do on the land side and what we can do on the transit side."
Between the development of a plan, the subsequent search for a master developer to implement it, and the actual construction, the Saltillo District won't be finished for at least five years, perhaps as long as 10, by which time citizens will likely have decided on light rail once and for all. Moreover, if and when the state embarks on its current plans to rebuild I-35 at or below ground level, Saltillo could become a gateway between Downtown and an Eastside no longer cut off by the highway. For now, Archer admits, "We don't know what we'll end up with."
Such long-term factors will influence both what materializes in the Saltillo District and how that and other projects transform the corridor. Listening to the neighbors and trying to deliver what they want -- neighborhood reinvestment but without gentrification -- is "paramount" to Saltillo's success, says George Adams. Addressing those needs while keeping the project both well-designed and economically feasible involves a balancing act. The city and Cap Metro -- in official parlance, "the partnership" -- have created a new Saltillo community advisory group to provide feedback on ROMA's ideas, serve as a sounding board for the community, and act as a liaison for the two public entities. Cap Metro will choose its five members in August; the City Council expects to appoint its four members July 31.
As a huge agency asset and a key component of its light-rail plans, the Saltillo District is a big deal for the Cap Metro board; it may not be such a priority for the City Council, particularly after Garcia's departure. While Archer's boss, Dianne Mendoza, Cap Metro's director for community involvement, describes new Mayor Will Wynn as "very open, easy to talk to, and informed" about Saltillo, some in the community, including Susana Almanza, are more skeptical about how often Mr. Downtown will cross the highway. Council Member Raul Alvarez, who got his start in East Austin politics as transportation coordinator under Almanza at the environmental group PODER, has been the council's point man on the issues the neighbors attach to Saltillo -- gentrification and land-use changes along the corridor to change its industrial character.
Alvarez and city staff may have more tools at their disposal to help East Austin redevelop without displacing the area's poor and working-class residents. House Joint Resolution 16, by Rep. Fred Brown, R-Bryan, would allow all taxing entities (instead of just school districts) to freeze property taxes for the elderly and disabled should voters approve it as a constitutional amendment (No. 13 on the September ballot). The Saltillo evaluation team also has advocated creating a tax-increment financing district in the corridor to allow increased property taxes from the area to be targeted to projects within the immediate community. Meanwhile, Alvarez says he's paying attention to the other projects, like Pedernales and the Villas on Sixth, already happening in the corridor that may expedite the Saltillo project. "We need to be ready for that."
Dirt started to move Wednesday on the Pedernales Live/Work project, designed to create affordable housing for artists and "creative class" types who want to own homes in the city. Down the street, the Villas on Sixth, being developed by national affordable-housing builder Campbell-Hogue in partnership with the YMCA, will serve families earning up to 50% of the area median income; 85% of its 160 units will be rent-restricted. Further west, right next to the Saltillo property, El Nuevo Mercado -- billed by its creators, Z Development, as sustainable, mixed-use, and pedestrian-oriented -- has received the green light from the city, though it's still seeking investors and final approval of its site plan. Another, smaller mixed-use project, Sixth + Brushy -- a block northwest of El Nuevo Mercado, near I-35 -- is also currently being marketed.
The Private Sector Speaks
The area's neighborhood factions have bestowed their blessings, or at least their tacit consent, not only upon the Saltillo effort but to all these projects, as well as to the UT elementary charter school, the East Seventh Street revitalization project, and other signs of life in the corridor. This is after decades of neighbors and their battles -- with each other and with the city and Cap Metro -- being blamed for the lack of reinvestment in the Eastside. What gives?
While both the East Cesar Chavez and Holly neighborhood plans call for redevelopment to remove blight and improve quality of life, the El Concilio leaders behind the Holly plan (often joined by the PODER) have for years spawned frustration by mobilizing against efforts that other stakeholders argue would create precisely that reinvestment. Given that history, former Garcia aide Paul Saldaña, now working as a public affairs consultant to Campbell-Hogue on the Villas on Sixth, calls the current calm "unusual." Both planning teams support that project, and Gavino Fernandez testified on its behalf when Campbell-Hogue went to the Texas Dept. of Housing and Community Affairs seeking state assistance. (The TDHCA was discussing on Wednesday, as the Chronicle went to press, whether the $17 million Villas project will be awarded in low-income housing tax credits.)
Opposition to El Nuevo Mercado, says its developer Steve Bauman, has been "negligible"; the ECC team has backed the project, and the Travis Central Appraisal District has assured neighbors that the development will not lead to a spike in their taxes. Rafael Quintanilla, Alvarez's 2000 council opponent and current chair of the Austin Community College board, is El Nuevo Mercado's legal and political adviser and has helped Bauman's Z Development understand and respond to community needs and wants. A bigger hurdle for the Mercado, Bauman says, is redlining, particularly after several key investors backed out citing the economic downturn; while Liberty Bank is "an exception to the rule," he says, other major banks have been loath to finance Eastside projects, despite federal laws banning discrimination in lending.
Even Pedernales, which promises to help keep East Austin weird (and affordable) in hip, west-of-the-highway style, hasn't inspired any jeremiads on race and class from the community. Behind the project are landowner Perry Lorenz, architect Richard deVarga, and former mayoral aide Larry Warshaw, whose erstwhile boss Kirk Watson was a main target of El Concilio wrath. The Pedernales project follows both Smart Growth and SMART Housing guidelines, and earlier this month became one of the last projects to be awarded Smart Growth incentives before the city closed that program down in favor of its new, jobs-focused economic policy.
Warshaw says that under the new rules, the Pedernales could never have been able to fund the benches, landscaping, 20-foot sidewalks, and other ped-friendly, quality-of-life amenities included in its site plan. He bristles at the council's decision to award at least $37 million in tax rebates to the proposed Domain mixed-use development in Northwest Austin, when that money could be diverted to keeping East Austin affordable, or giving a break to its local businesses. "What could that $37 million do for this area?" he asks. "If we have limited resources, we could incentivize development in economically down areas, optimize affordability, and not just look at it in a vacuum of sales and property tax."
The Pedernales' first building should be open by January, with the entire project completed by September, giving the Saltillo corridor a big taste of what may be its future. Meanwhile, stakeholders -- including the private developers who have jump-started the corridor -- will keep their eyes fixed on Cap Metro's mangy 11 acres. "For the last 25 to 30 years, there's been discussion about East Austin redevelopment," Saldaña notes. "Now it's finally on the horizon. Are we going to be able to get there?"