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Council advances St. Johns site redevelopment

Thursday, July 30, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

After over a decade of holding on to the vacant St. Johns site in Northeast Austin, City Council has moved to rezone and open bids for redeveloping the 19-acre property into a mixed-use, mixed-income residential neighborhood and community space.

The property was purchased by the city with bonds totaling $12.4 million with plans for a new police station and courthouse, but the old Chrysler dealership and Home Depot lots have remained empty, producing no property taxes for the city, for the past decade.

“What we’ve got is an empty big-box store that’s falling to disrepair and barbed wire fences,” Council Member Greg Casar said on Tuesday. “And in conversation with the community, that neighborhood has not been asking for continued over-policing, but instead for housing that’s affordable to people who have been priced out, families that want to be able to stay, to not have their school closed, opportunity for family members to come back and places for small businesses and nonprofits to thrive.”

Depending on the development contract bids received, the site may contain between 140 and 300 residential units – with at least half being income-restricted – along the eastern portion of the property surrounding St. Johns Park. Due to the neighborhood’s history as a site of both neglect and disruption by the city and state, the affordable housing units are to be “particularly accessible” to current as well as previous neighborhood residents.

With priorities on economic opportunity, equity and livability, the UT Center for Sustainable Development created four general development scenarios for the property that also include new public infrastructure and street grid connectivity, increased open space and a portion of the property set aside for commercial and community services.

In preparation, Council initiated a rezoning at Wednesday’s meeting of the two lots at 7211 N. Interstate 35 and 7309 N. Interstate 35 from Public-Neighborhood Plan (P-NP) combining district, Limited Office-Mixed Use-Neighborhood Plan (LO-MU-NP) combining district and General Commercial Services-Mixed Use-Neighborhood Plan (CS-MU-NP) combining district to General Commercial Services-Mixed Use-Vertical Mixed Use Building-Neighborhood Plan (CS-MU-V-NP) combining district. The rezoning will be finalized with a future developer agreement.

“This project is an example of the kind of community development we are fighting for: inclusive of various income levels, mixed-use so that existing residents can enjoy the amenities and the use of affirmative marketing for housing (and hopefully also for hiring) to fulfill the right-to-stay and right-to-return policies,” said Kendra Garrett, director of housing and community development with Austin Justice Coalition.

Whichever development scenario is chosen, the city intends to reintroduce some segments of the neighborhood’s street network and connectivity prior to I-35 being built through the middle of the African American neighborhood. Unable to undo the ongoing community damage and pollution caused by I-35, the adopted site requirements include consideration of a splash pad, gardening plots, walking trails and an active transportation boulevard, all located on the eastern side of the property farthest from the interstate.

“As a site sitting along the highway, in an area that is somewhat isolated by other parts of the city by that highway, it represents an opportunity to think about, how do we transform such sites in ways that protect the community from the pollution coming off the highway, and all of the scenarios … have tried to build that in,” said Liz Mueller with UT’s Community and Regional Planning program. “So we’re trying to keep residents and active uses of that land on the side of the property away from the highway and do things next to the highway that provide a buffer of some sort.”

The residential and active spaces would be separated from I-35 by an approximately 500-foot buffer of more car-oriented commercial and office development on the western perimeter of the property.

Although now entirely encircled by I-35, U.S. Highway 183 and U.S. Highway 290, Mueller said the vacant property “presents an opportunity to think about how we might create opportunities for people with ties to the community to return if they want to.”

Cherelle Vanbrakle, Casar’s appointee to the city’s African American Resource Advisory Commission, said this is a good opportunity for many Austinites like her who may have been pushed out of their neighborhoods by rising costs of living. “I think pushing forward with this is not only going to help Austin as a whole with the Black residents, but it will really help this community thrive. There’s so much history there that is to be lost if we don’t do something now.”

UT’s 2018 Uprooted report identified the St. Johns neighborhood as being in the relatively early stages of gentrification, with displacement already a cause for concern.

The city anticipates a funding gap of roughly $40 million-$70 million for the property’s infrastructure and redevelopment needs. Casar has proposed setting up a tax increment reinvestment zone that the city anticipates could cover as much as $30 million in property taxes from development over 30 years. Considering that the site has long been off the tax rolls and the potential for new tax revenue, Casar said the gap is “not that large.”

Assistant City Manager Rodney Gonzales said the city would still need to look at other financing options to fill the entire funding gap if a special tax zone is created. These may include housing tax credits, approved or future affordable housing bonds or reprioritizing capital project funds. Council’s resolution also mentions funding some pieces of redevelopment using parkland dedication fees, fee waivers to support affordable housing or issuing new debt.

Alternatively, Council Member Alison Alter noted that a developer could enter the picture ready to pay for more of the development costs up front – as in the recent past with the McKalla Place project – as long as they are invited and are made aware of the opportunity.

“I’m not saying that we shouldn’t make investments,” Alter explained, “but I think if we have developers who are willing to be creative and work with the community … my hope is that (they) can join the conversation of how we make our city more equitable in new ways. And hopefully they will have learned something over the past several weeks and be able to step up in new ways, and I want to welcome them to do that.”

The amount of the funding gap and the development scenario will largely depend on the responses the city receives over the coming months. “We could get a respondent that is entirely mission-driven and putting a lot of their own money in, and the gap may be smaller than what we anticipate, or it could be larger,” Casar said.

Video still of the old Home Depot site from YouTube.

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