Push to revitalize downtown restarts

New Round Rock zoning paves way for development

For nearly 60 years, Juana Camacho has resided in the same three-bedroom, white brick home that her late husband built in 1955 within the "Flats" neighborhood north of downtown Round Rock's Main Street.

Throughout most of that time, the Flats has remained more or less the same as it exists today—a diverse community of lower- and middle-income families living in modest houses that have often been passed down through generations.

In August 2013, however, in an effort to encourage development, Round Rock City Council approved a series of zoning changes to the city's downtown area. The new zoning rules opened the Flats to a number of uses, including restaurants, entertainment venues and multifamily housing units. The zoning also allows for day care, outdoor cooking and outdoor entertainment businesses, pending special approval by the city's Zoning Board of Adjustments.

Rental property owners and developers see the rezoning as an opportunity to rebuild and increase the value of an area that has long been neglected. Camacho and many other residents of the Flats, however, are concerned the developments could alter the social fabric of their neighborhood and eventually push them out of their homes.

"The Flats have been ignored for so long, and now [the city and developers] are interested because our land is valuable to them," said Juana's daughter Sophia Camacho Carlin. "There are some people in the Flats who want to sell, and that is up to them. But don't force me to sell because it has been made so unbearable to live there."

In December, John Avery Jr., a local developer whose family controls significant land holdings in and around Round Rock, applied for a special-use exemption for the property adjacent to Camacho's house. According to a city staff report, "The applicant proposes an outdoor, open-air pavilion that would be a performance area for live music."

Some Flats residents perceived the proposed outdoor music venue as the sum of all their fears for what the rezoning will bring and voiced strong opposition to the development at a Jan. 8 ZBA meeting. Avery Jr. later decided to withdraw the application; however, the possibility still remains that the music venue, or similar businesses could move forward in the future.

Gordon Perez, who resides in the same house on East Austin Avenue that his parents moved into in the 1950s, says for him and many of his neighbors, there is no interest in redeveloping their neighborhood for commercial uses—even if the result is an increase in property values.

"I just want to live here and die here if I need to," he said. "I am not into speculation and buying and selling houses. I just want a home to call my residence and to call my neighborhood."

Downtown vision

Round Rock's downtown is roughly defined as the area between I-35 and where Liberty Avenue dead ends, and from Brushy Creek to the Union Pacific railroad tracks.

In 2010, City Council adopted a downtown master plan that sets forth the goals and blueprints for the future of downtown. Since then, every action taken by city staff in the downtown area—including rezoning, road construction and utility work—has reflected the plan's vision of creating a downtown core that promotes a walkable environment of mixed-use businesses, public space and residences.

"People want to have options in their own city, and I think this [plan] allows that," Councilman Craig Morgan said. "I don't think this is ever going to be an [Austin-type] Sixth Street district, and I don't think that was ever our goal. We just want to provide a downtown quality of life if our citizens want to come enjoy dinner or hear some live music."

In increments and stages, the transformation has already begun. Completed public projects include the Main Street Plaza in front of City Hall featuring an events pavillion and waterscape; the Centennial Plaza adjacent to the McConico Building that is designed to host live music events and festivals with as many as 1,000 attendees; and the reconstruction of the streets, sidewalks, lighting and utilities of the southwest downtown area.

Private development appears to be taking off in the wake of the city's investments. Developer Nelson Nagle has built more than 30,000 square feet of new office space near the downtown's western edge. Numerous restaurants and bars, including Krave, The Brass Tap and Curly's Carolina, TX Barbecue have opened on Main Street in the past two years.

"Our vision here has been a success, and it is almost to the point right now where we can't keep up the infrastructure with the private development interests," Round Rock Transportation Director Gary Hudder said. "It is working too well at the moment."

Pushing forward

While the majority of downtown developments during the past decade have occurred in the southwest portion and along Main Street, the focus is now turning to the remaining areas.

By early April, city staffers plan to begin a major road construction project along Mays Street and Round Rock Avenue. The impetus is to promote pedestrian traffic across Mays Street, where the high volume of cars has discouraged walking.

The city has also become involved in real estate acquisitions as a means of regulating the types of developments it wants to see in the area. On Aug. 8, City Council approved a $1 million economic incentive agreement to acquire 3 acres of land on East Bagdad Avenue formerly occupied by Gypsum Supply Co. Round Rock Planning Director Brad Wiseman said the city plans to entertain bids this spring from developers on how to utilize the tract.

"We see that being an integral component of the whole area," Wiseman said. "It will be some form of entertainment use. We don't want that to be a row of townhomes or an office building."

Antiquated infrastructure, however, remains a development obstacle in the older parts of downtown. The area's street and lot plans still follow dimensions laid out more than a century ago, and the majority of the utilities were designed to support small, single-family residences—not office buildings, restaurants or multifamily units that require modern parking, plumbing and electrical systems.

"As an individual developer with one 45-foot [-wide] lot, you do not want to fix the whole problem of downtown Round Rock," said John Avery Sr., who owns a converted residential office in downtown as well as several lots he is considering developing.

As a solution to address the aging infrastructure, the city has begun offering incentives to developers to improve public utilities. Jon Sloan, former president of First Texas Bank, said he received rebates on impact fees and permits when he and his wife, Becky, built two new office buildings in 2013 on Lampasas Street, in exchange for upgrading the wastewater, sidewalk and parking surrounding his building.

"What is great about that for the city is it saves us money because [a developer] can do it a lot cheaper than we can," Wiseman said.

Learning to coexist

Whether the redevelopment of downtown results in a revitalization of the surrounding neighborhoods or their demise depends largely on what types of businesses move in, according to some residents.

Sloan's new buildings are cited by some Flats residents, city staff and developers as an example of how commercial growth can coexist with established residential neighborhoods. Built with early 1900s–era craftsman-style architecture, the buildings accentuate the nearby homes, and because the buildings host attorneys' offices, the impact on the community is minimized.

Sloan, however, also recognizes the financial pitfalls new developments can cause for residents.

"As you come in and replace old structures with new ones ... you will see property values go up," he said. "There is a great amount of debate in the rezoning process whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. Some of the folks who are renting down here—their rent could be going up."

Brian Cave resides on East Austin Avenue and serves as vice president of the Heart of Round Rock Neighborhood Association, which represents all of the residential neighborhoods surrounding downtown, including the Flats. Cave believes the redevelopment of the Flats may price residents out of an area that serves as one of Round Rock's last low-income housing communities.

"They have been wanting sidewalks and streetlights down there for a long time—they have just never gotten it," he said. "Their side of town has never really been looked at, and now it is being looked at with the perspective of 'how can [developers] make money off of it.'

"They have a wonderful community down there. Is it the prettiest? No. Is it the wealthiest? No. But for them, it is their community."