It's bustling right now as Austin Public Health's major drive-through COVID-19 testing site, but for more than a decade, the city-owned property at St. Johns and I-35 that once housed a Home Depot and a Chrysler dealership has mostly been used to store compost bins. That could finally be about to change: After a two-year community engagement process, the city has unveiled four different mixed-use redevelopment scenarios for the site, each with varying amounts of housing, green space, and other community uses.
Together, the two parcels are 19 acres. The city bought the old Home Depot (shuttered when the store relocated to Mueller) in 2008 for $8.1 million, and then the former Heart of Texas auto dealership in 2013 for $2.9 million. Originally, the site (and reuse of the existing Home Depot building) was earmarked for a new police substation and municipal court. That plan was abandoned over cost concerns, and the deteriorating parcels have been an eyesore for St. Johns neighbors.
When Akeem McLennon moved to the neighborhood in 2016, he attended a picnic at what would become the St. Johns Pocket Park – a benefit the community had to fight for – with a clear view of the decrepit site. "I was disappointed and frustrated seeing that," McLennon, who's now vice president of the St. Johns Neighborhood Association, told us. "Especially because shortly after that picnic, the city started storing the compost bins there. We all felt insulted by that, because the neighborhood was where they were kind of keeping the trash."
The new development scenarios, crafted with the help of the UT School of Architecture's Center for Sustainable Development, could bring between 140 and 300 new housing units to the area, with some set aside for low-income families, as well as a park expansion and commercial space along I-35. Those plans could change depending on Council and community input.
The price tag for this redevelopment – specifically, the gap between its costs and existing funds – ranges from $41 million to $71.5 million. That includes defeasing the original bonds for the municipal court plan (approved by Austin voters in 2006), but not the cost of needed infrastructure improvements such as new streets. Staff's proposed financing solutions include new bond dollars (or short-term city debt), fee waivers to reduce the cost of housing construction, parkland dedication fees, and perhaps a tax increment reinvestment zone to capture increased value of the site and nearby properties.
Council Member Greg Casar, whose District 4 includes St. Johns, hopes Council can discuss financing options at a work session after its July break; from there, staff will put together a request for proposals from developers. Casar hopes the neighborhood's long struggle to get to this stage will signal to Austin's other marginalized communities that it doesn't have to be that way anymore. "There's no way you would have had parking lots covered in trash bins and an empty swimming pool surrounded by barbed wire in other parts of the city," Casar told us. "The hard work is not just accepting the obvious as the old reality, but in doing the hard work of changing things. The St. Johns community members who rallied around this project did that, and now they have more of the tools they need to make more change in the city."
See site plan scenarios for St. Johns and I-35 with this story online at austinchronicle.com/news.
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