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

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.

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.

“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.”

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.

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