Crestview at the Crossroads
Near north neighborhood faces redevelopment transformation
If any neighborhood might serve as a case study for the accelerating transition between old Austin and new, it is Crestview.
"Lost Austin" is easily discovered in Crestview's north-central environs. Hidden away at a strip center in the heart of the neighborhood, the tiny Crestview Minimax grocery store sports a sign reading "Since 1953" a phrase that ought to be preceded by the word "unchanged."
Most of the houses in Crestview bound on the south by Justin Lane, on the north by Anderson Lane, and by Burnet and Lamar on the west and east were built about that same year, and a few even remain occupied by their original owners. Most are architecturally unremarkable standard utilitarian cottages with two bedrooms and tiny closets, thrown up in droves to accommodate the postwar population boom. For the past 10 to 15 or so years, these unpretentious homes have remained good places to raise children for new homeowners who couldn't bear the thought of moving to the suburbs but were priced out of trendier Hyde Park or Travis Heights. Crestview has merged invisibly with Brentwood to the south, and some cars sport bumper stickers reading, "Brentwood/Crestview: Close in and Far Out."
Accelerating signs of change are obvious, however. The housing prices, once attractive to first-time home-buyers, are rapidly shooting out of range for young families. Here and there, on the few vacant lots left, "Metrohouses" (or "McMansions") and other abodes of similar über-hip architecture are springing up buildings that, whatever one thinks of their utility or attractiveness, are clearly inconsistent with the Fifties architecture of their neighbors. Within that already-changing landscape, the next couple of years and two major redevelopment plans could well reshape Crestview's future more profoundly than the past 30 to 40.
Along the neighborhood's eastern boundary, Huntsman Chemical in 2005 closed the last of a series of research facilities that had operated there for 56 years. In its place will come the first real test of the city's Transit-Oriented Development Ordinance: a mixed-use development to be called "Crestview Station" that will wrap high-density housing and retail around Capital Metro's commuter-rail station planned for Airport and North Lamar.
On the neighborhood's opposite, northwestern corner actually just across Burnet, in the Allandale neighborhood the aging and financially struggling Northcross Mall is slated for its own massive redevelopment. Exactly what character the new Northcross will take is still officially under wraps, but e-mail listservs of Crestview and adjacent neighborhoods are aflame with rumors of an invading Wal-Mart.
Inevitably, these developments will affect more than just Crestview whatever affects this neighborhood also spills over to Brentwood; Northcross also borders the Allandale, North Shoal Creek, and Wooten neighborhoods; and Crestview Station will actually face into the Highland neighborhood. But Crestview, sandwiched in between the two properties, will surely face the most dramatic consequences. And as the harbinger of much broader changes throughout the city, Crestview may well serve to predict, for good and ill, what will be happening to Austin.
"I'm excited to be involved," says Mike Blizzard, the community-relations consultant hired by the developers of Crestview Station, who has longtime roots in Austin's environmental movement as a political consultant. "This is really an outstanding project. We're talking about cleaning up a polluted industrial site, bringing it up to a residential standard, allowing for the construction of 1,200 housing units in the heart of the [city's official] Desired Development Zone, [in] walking distance from a rail stop with express bus service along a major arterial, and 100 percent compliant with the neighborhood plan. It's not just a win-win, it's win squared." Of course, Blizzard gets paid to say things like that. But if response in the neighborhood isn't quite so hyperbolic or enthusiastic, neither does it rise quite to the level of opposition.
"That's easy for anybody to say," says Steve Kuehner, vice-president of the Crestview Neighborhood Association. "There's a history in Austin of the neighborhood plans sort of being rammed down the neighborhoods' throats. ... Especially with that [Huntsman] property. It met the city guidelines. The neighborhood didn't have a whole lot to say about how that property was going to be developed. Between the neighborhood plan and the concept of the rail-station development around that, it was kind of a done deal about how it was going to be developed. So yeah, it was gonna be what the neighborhood plan said it was going to be. ... He's not wrong."
Nonetheless, Kuehner says, "I was glad to see [Huntsman] move on. ... It could be worse. The jury's still out." Opinions at a Sept. 11 neighborhood association meeting seemed to range from supportive to neutral. Most expressions of concern began with, "I like what you're doing, but ..."
Although Crestview Station is very much a private enterprise, the development was effectively willed into existence by city planners. After voters approved a Leander-to-Downtown Capital Metro commuter-rail line in 2004, the City Council was determined to maximize the amount of "mass" that would be near the "transit" and asked city staff to craft an ordinance that would create Transit-Oriented Development Zones around six of the eight Austin stops of what Capital Metro has since branded MetroRail.
After a public input period that was either substantial or rushed (depending on whom you ask), the council signed the ordinance into law in May 2005, and the Leander City Council enacted a similar ordinance governing the area around the ninth stop. (See "Here Comes the Train," Jan. 28, 2005.) The intent of the zoning was not only to allow but to mandate higher-density and mixed-use development near the stations.
Two of the zones (Downtown and Saltillo Plaza) are already developed to some degree, with the TOD zoning simply determining the direction development will take when the uses of the properties contained within those zones change. The other zones, however, cover land that is currently undeveloped, so the TOD plans form blueprints for what will become entire new neighborhoods.
Onward and Upward
While the Huntsman tract was occupied when rail passed, a station was planned for the land anticipating that the chemical company was planning to shut down its operations. Almost immediately after the ordinance was signed, the Dallas-based Trammell Crow real estate company bought the land and partnered with Austin's Stratus Properties to develop plans tailored to the city's desires. The plant facilities have already been demolished, and once an environmental remediation process is completed, the two companies will have a blank slate to make the TOD vision happen. While some development deals are in the works for other TOD zones (see p.34), none is as far along as Crestview Station.
Currently, there are no buildings anywhere in Crestview taller than two stories. For the most part, that will still be the case even after Crestview Station is built, but the TOD zoning for this particular area does allow up to six floors. With the ordinance calling for an average density throughout the zone of 15-25 dwelling units per acre and single-family homes prohibited in the areas closest to the train platform it's obvious some of the building will go upward.
The developers' time line calls for everything to be up and running by the time the MetroRail station opens in the fall of 2008. Before construction can begin, a yearlong cleanup must first take place the site has housed a series of chemical research facilities, most recently Huntsman's, and until 1969, waste was buried on the property in a manner that would be illegal today. Trammell Crow and Stratus say the buried waste represents a "low risk" and that none of it is known to be highly toxic, flammable, explosive, or carcinogenic. The property will be cleaned to meet the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's standards for residential use. The neighbors are understandably happy about the chemical remediation. Their biggest concerns now are the more typical neighborhood/developer worries such as increased traffic and pedestrian access. Although plans have evolved since the original land sale, current expectations are that the 75-acre site will contain about 75,000 square feet of retail and office space, about 800 apartments and condominiums, and 500 single-family homes.
While the central planning concept underlying Transit-Oriented Development is, obviously, that Crestview Station residents will be using mass transit, common and commercial sense dictates that there will still be some auto traffic in and out of the new mini-neighborhood.
Blizzard believes adjacent neighborhoods need not worry too much about the inbound stuff. Although no retailers have been contractually nailed down yet, current plans won't allow for an anchor tenant of the major big-box variety. "Mostly, the retail there will be designed to accommodate the residents of Crestview Station," he says. Although there will be no strict provisions for locally owned businesses, Blizzard says the developers have made inquiries to Wheatsville Co-op as a possible grocery option.
The Crestview Station residents, of course, will also be drawn to amenities on Burnet Road, at the other end of the neighborhood. The cross streets nearest the development are Justin (on the south) and Morrow (cutting right through the heart of the neighborhood). Another concern is that the plans currently have no provisions for pedestrians to cross the tracks between Crestview Station and the existing homes, except at the northernmost corner (farthest from the station), raising concerns that the line will be inaccessible to the older part of the neighborhood and possibly do what train tracks so often do to communities act as a segregating wall.
The developers aren't required to go too far in addressing those concerns. Unlike the Triangle or Mueller both of those developments were built on government-owned land and thus required to submit to massive public input the Huntsman tract is entirely private property, and the developers are not asking for any variances from the City Council.
Thus, longstanding neighborhood desires for a permanent neighborhood library branch (the current North Village location resides in rented retail space) and public green space (no parks exist within Crestview's boundaries) will go unfulfilled. Library branch backers will have to settle for the new branch being built on Steck, several blocks north of Anderson, and while Blizzard proudly notes that the softball fields on the northern end of the property will be renovated, they will nonetheless remain under a 20-year lease to the North Austin Optimists and available to the public only when not in use by that group.
But Trammell Crow and Stratus are determined not to become the neighborhood villains (especially given the past public bruisings Stratus has endured for developments over the Edwards Aquifer), and they quickly addressed the traffic concerns. While initial plans called for traffic access to Morrow, that plan has been axed. Neighbors fought a nearly 20-year battle to ban left turns from northbound Lamar onto Morrow, which were sending artery-volume traffic down a residential street. They didn't want these new plans to undo that work, and the developers quickly agreed and additionally promised to redesign Banyon Street so that traffic would be forced right or left onto Lamar instead of emptying directly into the Highland neighborhood. "They've been sort of open for input," Kuehner says, "because in some ways they want to be good neighbors, to an extent."
As for Justin Lane, however, "I don't know how it can't have an increased east-west traffic flow," he says. "There are people who live there that are going to want to go west." The traffic volume of the street, which connects Lamar with Burnet, is already a source of consternation for residents; a substantial increase would be considered a disaster. "We've had an eye on the city and [have been] watching them and the little zigzag situation and Airport, Justin, and Lamar, that whole weird little intersection. The discussions with the city were that the city has had eyes on [removing the zigzag and] shooting straight through that corner. In other words, Justin hooking up with Airport. ... If there's an increase in traffic, it's just one more reason to justify making that a straight shot."
The developers don't actually say that there won't be an increase, but they did commission a traffic study from WHM Transportation Engineering claiming that the increase will be minor around 6% to 9% at peak traffic hours. "My understanding is that when Rashed [Tanvir Islam, WHM's lead engineer] did the traffic study," says Blizzard, "that he went ahead and kind of overestimated each traffic study to have kind of a conservative estimate."
Blizzard told a Sept. 11 neighborhood association meeting that he'll take the pedestrian-crossing concern to Trammell Crow and Stratus. But of course, the tracks aren't actually on the property those belong to Capital Metro and it's more likely that that agency will be the one to address those worries.
Regardless of whether the concerns are dealt with, Crestview residents had better get ready for new neighbors a lot of them. Crestview currently contains about 2,000 housing units. Another 1,200 are on the way that's an increase of 60%, presumably over a relatively short period of time.
For all that is already known about Crestview Station, the inverse is true of the Northcross Mall redevelopment. Dallas-based Lincoln Properties Vice-President Robert Dozier has not returned repeated phone calls from the Chronicle. Officially, site plans were filed this summer with the city. Such plans often change, but right now they call for a dramatic re-envisioning of what has been a fixture of north-central Austin for about three decades: The western two-thirds of the mall will be demolished, as well as parts of the northern, western, and southern parking lots. Northcross Mall will be transformed from one building into five, one of which will be a three-story parking garage.
The two smaller buildings would house 23,040 and 14,744 square feet of retail; the part of Northcross not being demolished, which holds Bealls department store, would support 153,345 square feet; and the largest, in what is now the south parking lot, would be a two-story structure containing 219,629 square feet, plus 5,456 square feet for what is labeled on the plans as "garden center." What will fill those other buildings? One raging (and rage-provoking) rumor is ... Wal-Mart.
The genesis of the rumor might have been the Austin American-Statesman's June 20 article announcing Lincoln's purchase of the mall and quoting a local real estate broker, "I would predict Wal-Mart is dying to get in there." But the same article quoted a Wal-Mart representative saying that the big-box leviathan has no specific expansion plans in Austin and Dozier saying that Lincoln had no definitive commitments from anchor retailers.
Conversations with area residents at least, those active in neighborhood affairs indicate that Wal-Mart would receive a chilly reception. At the Sept. 11 meeting, Crestview NA President Chip Harris said, "Anyone who would like to see a Wal-Mart at Northcross raise your hand." Admittedly, that's a rather leading way to gauge member sentiment these days in Austin, one only shows support for the Bentonville Behemoth after making sure that tar and feathers aren't readily at hand. Still, not a single person of about 75 raised a hand. An informal survey of e-mails posted to the Crestview, Brentwood, and Allandale neighborhood mailing lists were about as lopsidedly anti-Wal-Mart.
"Wal-Mart? Definitely not," Kuehner says, when asked what he might like in that space. Northcross "was a fine center at one time, but it just died," he laments, recalling the days back in the Seventies and early Eighties when it was one of Austin's major shopping centers. Today, it's essentially a ghost mall there's longtime anchor Bealls on one end of the mall and Sports Authority (formerly Oshman's) on the other, and the ice rink in the middle. Otherwise, it barely resembles the vibrant mall it once was. Many of the store spaces are vacant, and the few that aren't have been turned into nonretail uses, including a religious congregation and a conference center. The few nonskaters who roam the interior tend to be kids who've adopted the space as a place to play Dungeons & Dragons or whatever has replaced it among the gaming crowd these days not exactly a high-end commercial clientele.
Given that Northcross is already a transfer center for seven different Capital Metro bus routes, a mixed-use project similar to Crestview Station might seem to be a reasonable option, but the site plans don't indicate anything of the sort. "I don't know," Kuehner says. "I would have to see how the roads could handle it." Kuehner definitely doesn't want bars. About four years ago, Graham Central Station the Odessa-based company that creates what might be described as "bar malls," with multiple bars of different themes under one roof eyed the spot, but, after massive neighborhood hostility, opted to build further north on Grand Avenue Parkway. Dallas Nightclub just down Burnet has also had a strained relationship with residents for years. "We just really don't need any more alcohol. I'm getting rather staid in my old age, but I know what it does to traffic after midnight. They come roaring through the neighborhood all lit up," Kuehner says.
Allandale NA President Gretchen Vaden Nagy echoes the anti-bar sentiment and says, "Retail and grocery are at the top of my list," noting that her only grocery options are the undersized HEB at Burnet and 2222 and the tiny Sun Harvest a block west of Northcross.
"Outside of that ... hopefully not fast food; maybe some sit-down restaurants would be nice. I would have loved to have seen the city move the North Village library branch there, instead of going to Steck, where everyone will have to drive. How great would it have been to be able to go ice skating, go to the library, and have a grocery store, have some restaurants, basically a whole afternoon spent doing that kind of activity with your kids?"
Waiting at the Crossroads
The intersection of the MetroRail tracks and North Lamar suggests an obvious metaphor for the crossroads at which Crestview has arrived. While the merits of a city creating alternatives to more cars and sprawl are obvious, those very merits drive up that city's popularity. As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. What was once an affordable haven for regular working folks is already moving out of the financial reach of the next generation and property taxes are spiraling upward for those that remain. The MetroRail station, bringing with it a new wave of prosperity and its accompanying discontents, could very well accelerate those trends. Meanwhile, in an ironic counterpoint, on the opposite end of Crestview, rumors of a downmarket superstore that is itself a commercial magnet for regular working folks has residents worried about the devaluation of their neighborhood and a flood of the kind of traffic that MetroRail is supposed to lessen.
Sandwiched in between is a neighborhood that for a few decades seemed frozen in time. Now, dramatic change is inevitable for Crestview, and residents continue to wonder whether those changes will benefit or hurt them while they realize that their ability to steer the course of that change is limited at best. The prospect is both intriguing and confounding. "I'm kind of trying to think of what kind of things that our community, that people say, 'Well, what do you want in your community? What could it use more of?'" Kuehner says. "Well, I don't know. ... It needs a park. It needs a library."