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City to set ‘high bar’ for Colony Park developer candidates

Thursday, September 14, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

City planners leading the move to redevelop more than 200 acres of East Austin property are making no bones about it: Developers looking to turn dirt on the Colony Park project will have a high bar to clear in terms of expectations.

The city’s Request for Qualifications for master developers on the project is expected to be released later this month, kicking off a process that will lead to selection of a developer by City Council next summer.

The project will be the largest redevelopment of city-owned land since the Mueller property development, and is located on 208 acres on Decker Lane near Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park. The planned development will include more than 2,400 housing units, retail and office space, a transit center and an “innovation district” to one of the last large areas of undeveloped land in Austin.

In a briefing to Council last month, planners laid out the timeline for the project, which saw its master plan completed in 2014. In the time since then, responsibility for the project was transferred from the Austin Housing Finance Corporation, which managed a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to create the master plan, to the city’s Economic Development Department to oversee the redevelopment process.

Christine Maguire, manager of the city’s redevelopment division, told the Austin Monitor that even with ambitious sustainability and affordability goals Colony Park should benefit from Austin being a desirable market for real estate developers. That lofty reputation is expected to create heavy interest and give the city leverage in getting the best master developers and proposals for the community.

“We’re always looking to pillage any kind of new or innovative ideas out there and draw from successes, but one thing to be careful of in making comparisons is if a community is a strong market with strong fundamentals it creates a different situation that what you see happen to a market that’s in a weak standing,” she said. “With the interest in Austin right now, things are open for us to collaborate while working from a strong market position. We want a good deal that strikes the right balance for us.”

Martin Barrera, the city’s redevelopment project manager for Colony Park, said the development moving outward from Austin and Manor makes it important for the city to select a developer who will meet the master plan expectations for the area.

Interest in developing the so-called “Eastern Crescent” of Austin has increased drastically in recent years since the State Highway 130 toll road came online nearby, and the possibility of the Capital MetroRail Green Line servicing the Colony Park area makes it even more attractive.

“It’s a critical point in this community’s future because we’re finding development pressure coming from the core outward and in a ring from Manor going toward (the Eastern Crescent),” he said. “We need to set a high bar for developers in the area, and this is ambitious because we want it to be something that can be seen as a standard.”

Council Member Ora Houston praised the Colony Park project because of the jobs, commercial activity and community benefits it will bring to far East Austin, saying, “This will be a jewel in the Eastern Crescent and provide the much-needed amenities, housing types and resources that are sorely missing in that area.”

Council Member Pio Renteria said Barrera and other city leaders working on negotiating terms with master developer candidates should be diligent about keeping the public informed of the process and expectations as the plan moves forward. While not specifically mentioning the ongoing community frustration over Endeavor Real Estate Group’s plans for the Plaza Saltillo mixed-use project just east of I-35, Renteria’s advice seemed to reference the way residents’ trust can be damaged if expectations aren’t met, as has been the case there.

“Make sure you relay info to the community, because it can blow up if you don’t get that out there,” he said.

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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