Point Austin: The Stakes at 4700 Riverside

“Redevelopment” is always about community

Point Austin: The Stakes at 4700 Riverside

City Council's third and final vote last week on the 4700 Riverside redevelopment approved the project but likely hasn't ended the debate. The vote was divided 6-3-1, with abstainer Alison Alter (who previously voted no) saying explicitly that a few virulent opponents had poisoned the discussion. The public testimony and Council discussion were also split, with opponents repeating that the massive, multi-use project would "displace" current residents, replacing them with higher-income renters. The defenders argued that the project guaranteed a package of community benefits that would not be available under the current (already entitled) zoning standards.

None of this was new. But while the project has worked its way through neighborhood review, public meetings, boards and commissions, and finally to Council (with consequent revisions), its hyperbolic demonization by an aggressive handful of pseudo-revolutionaries (and a handful of their cynical enablers) turned it into a flashpoint of Austin arguments over growth, development, affordability, and "gentrification." That polarization generated a caricature of the project – its unofficial nickname, "Domain on Riverside," rings very differently in different ears – which will eventually include a broad range of housing, businesses, and offices, as well as a reconfiguration of the transit grid to better support multimodal options.

The most consistent official defender of the project has been Pio Renteria (it's in his District 3), who once again argued that the city needs to use its state-limited tools to ensure redevelopment carries significant community benefits – affordable units, greater density, neighborhood connectivity. He recounted his years of working for preservation and affordability in his own East Cesar Chavez neighborhood, noting that simply refusing to build more housing inevitably backfires.

"I want to make sure that we have guaranteed affordability for the next 40 years-plus, at least at 60 percent [median family income]," he said, "and we're going to get close to 500 units – that's why I'm going to vote yes."

Affordable for Whom?

Greg Casar offered the most detailed arguments against the project (Delia Garza and Leslie Pool also voted no), insisting from the dais (and online) that we shouldn't have to choose between more housing and affordability. While acknowledging that the Council vote was "really challenging," he said, "We can add hundreds of thousands of units of housing capacity without upzoning existing, older multifamily housing." On Facebook, he pointed to The Grove and Austin Oaks as alternative examples of infill developments that meet his standards. Both of those projects raised hard choices and polarized the neighbors, but neither approaches the scale (or schedule) of 4700 Riverside.

Nevertheless, describing the existing five complexes on the Riverside site as "multifamily" is simply inaccurate. Built for college students and rented mostly by the bedroom (that's what makes them "affordable"), according to Del Valle ISD (within which they're located), they house almost no school-age children or "families." That also means the student residents mostly "displace" themselves – two-year turnover is fairly standard. And over the projected 20-year timeline of the project, the deteriorating buildings would be steadily replaced in any case – without the substantial community benefits negotiated in the course of the city review.

Making an Omelet

Does that mean the approval was the right decision? Council was understandably divided, and we won't really know the answer for quite a while. In the meantime, the existing complexes will continue to house many of the same renters (or their younger successors). But if "affordable" doesn't only mean "cheap" but "affordable for a broad range of people in Austin who need housing," 4,700 total units, along with intensive development of nearby businesses, restaurants, etc., represent exactly what we need to be building to produce any downward pressure on citywide housing prices – not to mention effective, well-designed neighborhoods.

Four years ago (during bitter arguments over The Grove PUD), I wrote that "over the long haul, Austin will not bend the spiking housing cost curve without a substantial increase in available residential units of all kinds and prices," while naively speculating that the next redevelopment battle would not be quite so polarized. That was followed by the equally bitter Austin Oaks melodrama at Council, featuring video egg-smashing and uprooted model trees.

Now the 4700 Riverside project has become the latest proxy in what I described then as "the ongoing struggle over what sort of Austin we idealize, and what we mean when we each claim to know best what 'Austin values' are." For the moment, Renteria and Casar occupy opposite sides of that divide. Let's hope we won't have to wait 20 years to learn who was right.

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