After decades of planning, Plaza Saltillo heralds more density east of downtown

Construction began on the 10-acre, mixed-use Plaza Saltillo project in June.

Construction began on the 10-acre, mixed-use Plaza Saltillo project in June.

After decades of planning, Plaza Saltillo heralds more density east of downtown The Plaza Saltillo development will bring activity to Fourth Street with a pedestrian paseo, or enhanced walkway.[/caption]

An abandoned train depot located for nearly a century next to industrial warehouses and, farther out, the city of Austin's Mexican-American community, will soon become the dense, mass-transit and mixed-use hub that neighborhood and city leaders have envisioned and planned for the past two decades.


Construction began in June on the Plaza Saltillo development that spans 10 acres in the city’s burgeoning area east of downtown—between the I-35 northbound frontage road and Onion Street and East Fifth and Fourth streets. Endeavor Real Estate Group, which developed the The Domain and other high-profile Austin developments, is carrying out the plan for the site owned by regional mass-transit provider Capital Metro, and work is slated to be completed in 2019. The developer has a 99-year lease agreement with Capital Metro.


Capital Metro spokesperson Francine Pares said the project is the culmination of 20 years of work by hundreds of people.


“It’s just a barren patch of land right now, and it’s just going to bloom into something beautiful,” she said.



TRANSIT AND REAL ESTATE WORKING TOGETHER


Although officials tout the project’s ability to address two of Austin’s biggest issues—affordable housing and mobility—the development will all but surely cause already-skyrocketing property values to rise further. Plaza Saltillo is also expected to be a harbinger for more high-density commercial development that some in the neighborhood feel is incompatible with the area’s single-family residences.




Who is afforded housing at Plaza Saltillo? Of the approximately 800 residential units being built
as part of the 10-acre Plaza Saltillo development, at least 15 percent will be set aside for households that earn up to 50 percent of Austin’s median annual family income. The median annual family income for an Austin family of four is $81,400 in 2017. One cannot make more than the following salaries to live in the affordable units.[/caption]

It will comprise the following:




  • approximately 800 residential units;

  • of those 800, 141 units reserved for residents who earn up to 50 percent of Austin’s median family income, currently $81,400 a year for a family of four;

  • 110,000 square feet of retail, including restaurants;

  • 140,000 square feet of office space, primarily in an eight-story office tower at I-35; and

  • 1.4 acres of public open space


In addition, the Lance Armstrong Bikeway will be extended east from I-35 at Fourth Street to Plaza Saltillo, the B-Cycle bike share program will be expanded to the development, parking spaces will be reserved for Car2Go, parking will be available in below- and above-ground facilities, and San Marcos Street will be extended through the project.


The Plaza Saltillo development will be “significant” to Capital Metro's operations, particularly when it comes to providing a boost in transit ridership. Capital Metro’s Plaza Saltillo MetroRail station sits on the lone developed acre on the project site, Pares said.


“The higher your ridership, the more transit you can provide,” she said. “The goal is to help provide more riders. It’s a good thing for transit and real estate to work together.”


The project area will see truck traffic and temporary traffic-control measures over the next two years, Capital Metro spokesperson Mariette Hummel said in an email.



CHANGING NEIGHBORHOOD DYNAMICS


The changing landscape in East Austin contributed to the longer planning time, Hummel said.




After decades of planning, Plaza Saltillo heralds more density east of downtown An eight-story office tower will feature ground-floor retail and glass patterns.[/caption]

“There have been several iterations of what the community sought for this area and several market cycles in those 20 years,” she said. “The area has also changed over time as well as the needs of the community.”


Shawn Somerville, a homeowner and resident in the area for 12 years, said he remembers attending meetings more than 10 years ago during which designs of the project were proposed. He said at that time, about 2005-07, “the neighborhood was going gangbusters” as the value of property went up. Then the economic recession hit, and as the growth the neighborhood had experienced the past few years was scaled back, planning for the Plaza Saltillo development halted, he said.


Perry Lorenz, a partner at Constructive Ventures Inc., which was part of a bidding group known as the Saltillo Collaborative competing with Endeavor to win the contract for the project in 2014, said he was not surprised the deal took so long to negotiate.


“Those plans evolve, and they change,” Lorenz said. “It took them a long time to land on something that fit everybody’s criteria. Capital Metro wanted something that would demonstrate it would provide some density to make people use rail and to use that station. The community wanted affordable housing. Everybody had different things they wanted.”




Rising cost of land east of downtown The land just east of downtown Austin was just decades ago composed mostly of residences and industrial spaces. Now it is being transformed into a high-density district with high-rise apartments, retail, restaurants and nightlife—and property values have followed suit. Below are five properties around the Plaza Saltillo development that highlight the skyrocketing cost of land east of downtown Austin.[/caption]

Lorenz said the Endeavor contract will help Capital Metro meet its stated goals for the project. He and his team garnered endorsements three years ago from the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Contact Team, which helps carry out the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Plan, as well as other community groups.


He said the aspects of the Saltillo Collaborative’s pitch that were particularly appealing to the neighborhood were its plans for affordable housing. The group’s plan proposed to devote 25 percent of the residential square footage to affordable housing.


Somerville, who now serves as a member on the neighborhood contact team, said most of the membership has turned over since Capital Metro tapped Endeavor for the project. He said many in the group are disappointed with the outcome of 15 percent affordable housing when they had expected a quarter of the residences to go to lower-income households. He said he is among a minority on the contact team who supported the project.


“My view is if we wait another 10 years to build affordable units the people in the neighborhood that would have needed those will be gone by then,” he said.

By JJ Velasquez
The Central Austin editor since 2016, JJ covers city government and other topics of community interest—when he's not editing the work of his prolific writers. He began his tenure at Community Impact Newspaper as the reporter for its San Marcos | Buda | Kyle edition covering local government and public education. The Laredo, Texas native is also a web developer whose mission is to make the internet a friendly place for finding objective and engaging news content.


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