Developing Stories

Fresh Developments: Five current projects working for Austin-centric synergy

To Austinites dismayed at the failure of White Lodging Corp. (and its development client, Marriott Corp.) to give a damn about what Las Manitas Avenue Cafe represents for Austin, it can seem that every "iconic" place we love is at risk in the current development boom. In that particular saga, the developer has demonstrated callous indifference to the community value of preserving the beloved Tex-Mex cafe in its funky old building in the 200 block of Congress. White Lodging turned an indifferent ear even to City Council Members Lee Leffingwell, Mike Martinez, and Brewster McCracken when they sent a letter last fall pleading for the Marriott complex to be redesigned to accommodate the existing businesses and older storefronts, because "Las Manitas, Escuelita del Alma, and Tesoros are revered local institutions which have significant cultural and historic value to our community." The developer's condescending reply: "A successful convention hotel cannot be built on the block … if the existing buildings have to remain."

Like eHarmony for indie biz: A new online dating service to match locally owned business with indie-friendly commercial lease spaces has been launched by the Austin Independent Business Alliance. Commercial vacancies are submitted by developers and brokers actively seeking locally owned businesses as tenants; the first listings are for Southpark Meadows and Mueller regional retail. Visit: <a href= target=blank><b></b></a>.<p>
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Like eHarmony for indie biz: A new online "dating service" to match locally owned business with indie-friendly commercial lease spaces has been launched by the Austin Independent Business Alliance. Commercial vacancies are submitted by developers and brokers actively seeking locally owned businesses as tenants; the first listings are for Southpark Meadows and Mueller regional retail. Visit:

View a larger map

Period. No supporting facts. No effort to build consensus, no spirit of "giving back." Shackled by its corporate cookie-cutter approach to hotel design, White Lodging has failed to exercise the creativity required by a unique situation and opportunity. Instead, both the developer and hotel chain appear determined to subvert – most obtusely – even their own business and marketing self-interests: preserving civic goodwill and the authentically Austin "amenities" that motivate tourists to book hotel rooms in Downtown Austin.

Fortunately, not all developers are so thickheaded. In fact, several with interesting (in some cases, controversial) current projects in the central city are doing something we love: demonstrating real community-minded spirit by going the extra mile to preserve "iconic businesses" already on their sites. (All said they'd reflected on and been influenced by the Las Manitas standoff.)

Is it truly "economically unfeasible" for a developer to design a sleek new project that accommodates a popular locally owned restaurant and its funky structure? These five projects offer a resounding answer: Hell no!

Developing Stories
Photo By John Anderson

Taco Xpress/Walgreens

Status: Completed

Indie biz: Taco Xpress, 2529 S. Lamar,

From its 1997 start as a taco stand in a trailer, Maria's became a beloved dive that epitomized South Austin, frequented by musicians in the hood. In its new incarnation, it's a roomier taqueria with a full bar and huge covered patio. Austintatious features: earthiness, abundant folk art, down-home Tex-Mex, sculpture of Maria on the roof. Owner/founder: Maria Corbalan (Argentina native and 20-year Austinite).

New project: Walgreens A residential project also is under construction on the rear portion of the 5-acre site. Developer: David Darr, the Place Commercial Real Estate, San Antonio.

The story: This seemingly improbable collaboration between a national chain retailer, an out-of-town developer, and a tiny ultra-funky local business is a shining Austin success story. Taco Xpress' existence was initially threatened by the sale of its site, with plans to put a big new Walgreens where the taco joint sat. But developer David Darr reached deep to help Taco Xpress. He and Walgreens paid all site development and construction costs for the entire project, including the cost to build a new taqueria. Best of all, Corbalan – who had leased her space for 13 years – was able to buy the restaurant's acre. "I'm more secure now; I own where I am now," she explained.

Rather than putting the humble taqueria out of business, the deal allowed it to serve the neighborhood even better by tripling its size. The new place retains the old character: "I tried to make it trashy like the old one," Corbalan explains. Of her experience working with the developer, she said, "They treated me excellent. They were more than generous. Everyone was very, very nice. It was a very lengthy process – it took about three years – and lots of work, but David Darr is a beautiful person. He didn't need to be influenced by the neighborhood association. He's a person with a lot of dignity."

Developing Stories
Photo By John Anderson

Ranch 616/Seventh & Rio Grande

Status: Planned

Indie biz: Ranch 616, 616 Nueces at West Seventh,

Since 1997, Ranch 616 restaurant has offered an eclectic South Texas "bordertown icehouse" menu in a basic, low-slung building. The popular restaurant's Austin-funky character is enriched by Bob Wade neo-cowboy artwork, $1 Lone Stars, Texas wines, and live country music. The Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau regularly brings national journalists to Ranch 616 for a taste of Austin's distinctive flavor. Local owner/chef: Kevin Williamson.

New project: Seventh & Rio Grande Condo Tower

Proposed 32-story, 158-unit luxury condo tower, with ground-floor retail and Great Streets pedestrian amenities. A controversial zoning change request (to allow a 400-foot tower) is heading to City Council soon. Nearby neighborhood groups are divided on the project, but hundreds of Ranch 616 customers have signed a petition in support of the condo tower. Developer: CLB Partners. Architect: Rhode:Hurt. (A previous CLB project on which Brett Rhode was a lead designer, Austin City Lofts, won an AIA Design Award.)

The story: As on the Paggi House site, CLB Partners embraced the opportunity to practice "Iconic Preservation." It helped that CLB's Bobby Nail long had been a devoted customer and fan of Ranch 616. Says Nail, "It's cool! It represents what Austin is all about." The decision to go (very) tall on the Rio Grande side of the property made it possible to preserve Ranch 616 on the Nueces side.

Said owner/chef Kevin Williamson (a native Austinite), "It's a real comfort zone to know the developers want to keep everything we've worked so hard to build. It comes from these guys being responsible and smart about Austin and having a sense of community. Plus they understand that as a unique Austin restaurant, we're an appealing amenity for their residents." Benefits to Ranch 616 include the security of a new long-term (33-year) lease, gaining 100 dedicated parking spaces, and becoming the "house restaurant" for condo residents. On the downside, they'd have to close during construction.

The caveat: If the project doesn't get the zoning upgrade needed to rise 32 stories (existing zoning sets a 120-foot limit), the project as designed – and all bets on preserving Ranch 616 – is off.

Developing Stories
Photo By John Anderson

Paggi House/Bridges on the Park

Status: Under construction

Indie biz: Paggi House, 200 Lee Barton Dr., Lamar & Riverside.

An iconic Austin restaurant since the Seventies, Paggi House is in a romantic, 1846 carriage house that's among Austin's oldest buildings; it originally served as a way-station for travelers in need of a blacksmith shop. Currently closed for renovations and "reconcepting," the restaurant will reopen this summer. The menu will be upscale, the bar and wine cellar stocked, the atmosphere enduringly Austin-eclectic with a sense of history. Local owners: Rick Engel, Bob Gillett, Zack Fuentes, and chef Shane Stark.

New project: Bridges on the Park, Lamar & Riverside,

Six-story project will have 104 condos priced from the $300s to the $800s; nearly half the units are under contract, with completion scheduled for this fall. Ground-floor "boutique" retail may include locally owned businesses; the Pfluger Bridge and Town Lake Hike-and-Bike Trail are directly across Riverside. Developer: CLB Partners. Architect: Rhode:Hurt.

The story: CLB Partners immediately recognized the storied Paggi House as a unique and valuable asset to their project, according to the developer's local project lead, Bobby Nail. While CLB could have applied to move the historic structure – creating room to build another 50,000 square feet of condos – CLB elected not to develop that portion of the site. "That's a cost we chose to absorb," said Nail, "because of the specialness of what the Paggi House means to the neighborhood and the city. It was well worth it." They also limited the condos' height to the 60 feet allowed, seeking no zoning variances from the city and the neighborhood.

Nail and the owners of Paggi House approached the project collaboratively from the start. A new patio for the restaurant will tie it to the residence's pool/outdoor area and ground-floor retail for Bridges on the Park. The restaurant has gained the security of a 15-year lease; its owners see opportunities for poolside food and drink service, breakfast on the patio, and "room service" meal delivery for condo residents. All parties expressed excitement about the condo-restaurant fit and the experience of teaming. "They need us as much as we need them," said Gillett.

Developing Stories
Photo By John Anderson

Austin Java/BartonPlace Condos

Status: Planned

Indie biz: Austin Java, 1608 Barton Springs Rd.,; Uncle Billy's, coming soon, next door.

The local "funky yet refined" coffeehouse and cafe features organic and fair-trade coffees (freshly roasted in Austin), Wi-Fi, work by local artists, live music by local musicians, and cool neighborhood events. Neighboring Uncle Billy's promises to be "as casual as your favorite jeans, as cool as Barton Springs in July, as right as a cold beer at a backyard barbecue." Local owner: Rick Engel.

New project: BartonPlace condos, 1600 Barton Springs Rd.,

Goodbye Shady Grove RV Park, hello condominiums – about 250 units in six stories, atop two levels of parking. The development of the 4.3-acre site means the loss of a quintessentially Austin-weird trailer park; on the plus side, the developers will keep most healthy trees and provide improved public access to the Town Lake Trail. Project start is early 2008, with units priced $250,000-500,000. Developers: Constructive Ventures (Perry Lorenz, Larry Warshaw, Rick Engel). Architect: BOKA Powell LLC.

The story: Aware that his restaurant's site was ripe for redevelopment, Austin Java owner/founder Rick Engel (see Paggi House) proactively sought out the respected hometown Lorenz-Warshaw duo. They hit it off so well that Austin Java became a full partner in the resulting project.

Warshaw characterizes the decision to preserve the two restaurants as part altruism and part pragmatic conflict-avoidance. "We like the character of that area now, and we don't want to be responsible for damaging it," he said. "Based on our own set of values, those restaurants are important."

"The people we're trying to serve want local businesses and amenities; they love everything the central city has to offer," he continued. "So it would be counterproductive to remove the very thing people are moving downtown for – like being able to walk to Austin Java." On the other hand, the restaurants are "an economic drag on the project" because they occupy one-third of the site and necessitate extra parking. The proposed condos would be 15 feet higher than current zoning allows, requiring City Council approval. But as a trade-off, the developers would down-zone the front portion of the site, protecting its use solely for restaurants.

Developing Stories
Photo By John Anderson

Mean-Eyed Cat/Fifth Street Commons

Status: Planned

Indie biz: Mean-Eyed Cat, 1621 W. Fifth,

The Mean-Eyed Cat is an assertively raw beer-bar shrine to Johnny Cash (named after a favorite Cash tune). The blade-bedecked decor pays homage not only to Cash but to the sheet-metal-roofed shack's decades-long incarnation as Cut-Rite Chainsaws. Open just since 2004, this soulful bar with pool table, patio overlooking the train tracks, huge oak tree, and country icon schtick has become an instant classic. Owner/operator: Chris Marsh.

New development: Fifth Street Commons

This four-story mixed-use project fronting on West Fifth (from Campbell to West Lynn) will have 138 apartments, more than 37,000 square feet of ground-floor retail, plus a four-story garage. The architecture harkens back to traditional storefronts; in keeping with the desires of the Old West Austin neighborhood, locally owned businesses (and service providers) are actively being recruited as tenants. Construction is about to start; a spring 2008 opening is scheduled. Developers: Gables Residential and Direct Development (retail). Architect: LRK, Dallas.

The story: Chris Marsh is relieved that the new owner/developers of the site have carved out a little corner to keep the Mean-Eyed Cat – and the 300-year-old live oak tree standing out front. "The tree has been like protective arms over the top of me," said Marsh. "It helped make this a unique place; the developers really wanted to save the tree and us – because both things are cool and unique."

Marsh described the developers as "fantastic" about keeping him in the loop and demonstrating genuine interest in his business. The developers' site plan preserves his shack-bar and adds a large wooden deck out front around the oak tree (protecting its roots), according to Gables representative Krista Dabney. New ground-floor retail will be nestled around the deck, to create a space "like the lawn area and patio at Shady Grove" said Dabney. While the Pok-e-Jo's on the site couldn't be saved, the barbecue joint will have a new retail space in the development. The Cat will remain open throughout construction.

"They're a big business, and I'm a little business, and this does show we can coexist and get along," said Marsh. "Especially in Austin, that's how it should be."

Help on the way

The owners of Las Manitas and Escuelita are awaiting the details of a proposed new Congress Avenue Retail Retention and Enhancement Fund; on Jan. 11, the mayor and council directed the city manager to create guidelines and criteria for the fund, expected for action Feb. 15. Most likely, the fund would assist the Perez sisters with the cost of moving Las Manitas into another building they own, at Congress and Third (which could need a $1 million retrofit). Dina Flores, who owns Escuelita, could receive assistance with the forced move of her Spanish-immersion child-care center to another central location. Other small, locally owned businesses on Congress Avenue in similar circumstances also could tap the new developer-fee-fueled fund.

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development, White Lodging, Marriott, Las Manitas, Maria's Taco Xpress, Paggi House, Bridges on the Park, Ranch 616, CLB Partners, Rhode:Hurt, Austin Java, Barton Place Condos, Fifth Street Commons, Mean-Eyed Cat

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