Transformation of downtown Austin taking shape with possible $500M project

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Construction of one of the more visually dramatic projects– which would help transform southwest downtown Austin from an industrial area to a vibrant urban hub–could begin as early next year.

A $500 million redevelopment of the former Green Water Treatment Plant land, located west of the Second Street and San Antonio Street intersection, would include two mixed-use high rises that overlook Lady Bird Lake. The project is ready to break ground, but is contingent on Austin City Council approval, which is expected to take place April 26.

The site has a price tag of $42.4 million and includes 4.4 acres of land bounded by West Third Street, Cesar Chavez Street, Shoal Creek and San Antonio Street.

The city awarded Trammell Crow Co. the rights in 2008 for the redevelopment, which would include 75,000 square feet of apartment, hotel, retail and office space distributed over four blocks.

The project is part of a massive redevelopment of the Seaholm District and would connect Second Street via a new bridge across Shoal Creek extending to West Avenue. The city is expected to begin construction of the bridge in 2013 in conjunction with a new 200,000-square-foot central library.

During a March 22 update to City Council, Kevin Johns, City of Austin economic director, said the sale of the acreage completes the west end of the 2nd Street district.

“We’re talking about the Green Water project that completes a decade-long development process culminating in this critical piece for the city’s vision for the award-winning 2nd Street District project,” he said.

According to Andrew Ingrum of Thompson & Knight LLP, the law firm handling legal services for the site, the high-rise towers facing the lake along Cesar Chavez Street would be mostly residential with retail on the ground floors, while the other two blocks lining Second Street would house retail, office and restaurant space. Construction of one of the high-rise towers would likely occur first.

Adam Nims, head of Trammell Crow’s Austin office, said the company is ready to begin construction as soon as the city completes cleanup of the site, which is estimated to last six months. However, he said the city is still awaiting permit approval for the cleanup by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which will also likely take about six months.

Community benefits

The Green Water site is projected to generate $112 million in property taxes for the city over the next 30 years and $9.6 million in sales taxes. Of the $112 million, $67 million would go to the general and debt service funds, and $45 million would be designated for the city’s affordable housing fund. On-site job projection is estimated to be 1,861 positions.

In addition, the project includes a $250,000 contribution for improvements for Shoal Creek, a $375,000 contribution for public art on the site and a $150,000 donation to support on-site music programs.

Council concerns

On April 5, City Council postponed its vote on the site’s sale. Councilman Mike Martinez made the postponement motion to allow more time to work on contract term concerns, namely related to housing affordability and on-site worker safety.

Ingrum said 10 percent of the apartments would be affordable for families below 80 percent of the median family income level, and five additional apartments would be affordable for those below that level.

Further, housing affordability would last for a term of seven years, and then the city would have the option to continue the affordability on a year-by-year basis by making up the difference between any affordable rent and market value.

Ingrum explained there was a reduction in the housing affordability terms from the original proposal due to changes to an underground parking garage that would now add to the overall project cost.

While council action was postponed April 5, citizen testimony was allowed, and several people voiced disappointment in the housing affordability terms.

Resident Cathy Echols said she helped to include the original proposal’s conditions that allowed for 25 percent of affordable housing for those below 80 percent of median family income as well as 40 years of affordability, and felt betrayed by the new contract’s dramatic reduction in affordability rates.

Councilwoman Kathie Tovo echoed those concerns, saying she and her staff did extensive research, and she agrees the current contract does not reflect all the terms of the 2008 proposal.

“I think this is an exciting project, and I am delighted that this is closer to getting started, but I really think we need to have the commitment that was made at that time.”

Additionally, council heard testimony form several construction workers’ children as well as a worker, whose coworker died due to unsafe conditions. They spoke to the importance of safety and fair wages, and the continuance of the Workers Defense Project’s work on contract terms with the developer.

Moving forward

Mayor Leffingwell directed both issues to be addressed before April 26, as well as the possibility of creating a formal policy requiring collaboration with worker’s advocacy groups for all large construction projects in the future.

Martinez also cited concerns over bicycle issues, Shoal Creek improvements and the removal of heritage trees from the site, while Councilwoman Laura Morrison questioned the absence of plans for a senior center, which had been in the original proposal.

The overall consensus among members seemed to be in favor of the project as long as public concerns were addressed.

“I do believe this development is going to happen, and do believe this is a good thing, but we’ve got to get this right,” Martinez said.

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