Barring any unforeseen circumstances, construction on the 10-acre Plaza Saltillo redevelopment will begin Wed., June 28, after more than two decades of planning and redirection. The transit-oriented mixed-use space will sit just east of I-35, between Fourth and Fifth streets, and stretch six blocks east to the Capital Metro rail station at Comal. Developers Endeavor Real Estate and Columbus Realty Partners promise 800 apartments – "at least" 15% of which will be considered "affordable" (offered at 50% of the city's median family income), according to Cap Metro, which owns the land. (While it was widely reported that Endeavor's original proposal included 25% affordable housing, Cap Metro communications manager Francine Pares says the plan never changed: "It continues to follow the city's Regulating Plan, which calls for a developer to provide 15% affordable housing, and the option for the city to provide 10%.") The project will also have more than 200,000 square feet of retail and offices, and over an acre of open space and public art.
The Plaza Saltillo area first saw organized occupation in 1992 via Olé Mexico, a coalition of East Austin business owners who wanted to drum up tourism east of the highway. Cap Metro bought the rail-line ground in 1995, and two years later leased an acre to the city so Olé Mexico could build today's rail station and the community outpost that hosts the HOPE Farmers Market. In 2003, when Cap Metro and the city hired ROMA Design Group to create a master plan for the area, the intent was to produce a mixed-use project that, according to a Chronicle story at the time, "is both affordable and respectful of the existing character of the surrounding Eastside."
Now the new district will pay homage to the "history and its people" with a Masontown memorial – in honor of the post-Civil War former slave settlement – and will include two trails passing through: Trail of Tejano Music Legends and the Tejano Healthy Walking Trail, as well as a connection to an expanded Lance Armstrong Bikeway. But, with Austin's affordable housing quickly decreasing, monuments and scenic walks aren't exactly solving the city's most pressing problem: its housing crisis. Where will East Austin's current residents live if Plaza Saltillo drives up rent and property taxes?
"The Neighborhood Flavor"
City Council spent the first few months of 2017 discussing the ways in which the Plaza Saltillo development may affect housing issues, and in March approved Endeavor's proposed 70-foot-tall office building, which will anchor the project along I-35 (instead of the full-service grocery store proposed in the original plan). With the support of District 3 CM Pio Renteria, Council approved an additional height increase of up to four stories (making the office building eight stories instead of four) if Cap Metro, Endeavor, and the city each agreed to contribute additional funds to affordable housing in the Saltillo area.
The final dispute concerned the size of the affordable units. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo wanted 20 of the 141 total affordable units to have at least two bedrooms, in hopes of creating more family-focused housing, but Endeavor said that would kill the project. Council compromised with requiring 10 two-bedroom units. Renteria and Ora Houston were most divided on the issue: The former argued the project would create more housing for Eastside families, while the latter contended that Plaza Saltillo would cater mostly to newcomers. Renteria applied a postmortem via email: "The final iteration of this project isn't perfect, but it will provide significant benefits to our community." He noted that in addition to the affordable units, those living at Plaza Saltillo will have direct access to transit: "When transportation costs are the second-highest expense in most households, transit-oriented development like this is an important tool to make living in Austin more affordable."
State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, who's been involved with the development since 2000 – a year after he and his family relocated to the area – applauds Renteria's fight for affordable units. "It's important to keep as much of the neighborhood flavor as possible," he said. "From what I've seen, since winning the bid, Endeavor has really tried to work with the community, and I'm excited see the project move forward."
Building a Middle Class
Endeavor was awarded the project in June 2014 by the Cap Metro board over Saltillo Collaborative – which had received endorsements from both the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Planning Team and the Workers Defense Project, because SC promised to pay their workers a living wage and had more experience building and managing affordable housing. But Cap Metro determined that Endeavor's plan "provides a higher financial return to Capital Metro by generating more revenue than the competing proposal." The revenue from the project will go directly to Cap Metro's operating funds, yielding "millions of dollars," said Renteria, "which they will invest in creating a more reliable and frequent transit network for Austin families."
Endeavor ultimately committed to paying construction workers a living wage, but controversy over labor rights surrounded the project's developers for a while. Robert Shaw, who owns Columbus Realty, came under fire in 2015 when his other company, Amicus Construction, was accused of providing unsafe working conditions and refusing overtime pay at a Domain construction site. WDP Better Builder program director Bo Delp told the Chronicle at the time, "We were appalled to learn that Robert Shaw and his business partners are poised to profit greatly from the development and construction of Plaza Saltillo … while his construction company is subject of an open and ongoing federal investigation."
Delp and WDP amped up negotiations with Endeavor to ensure fair pay and worker safety at Plaza Saltillo after that. Delp said this week that WDP asked Endeavor to commit to the same standards Saltillo Collaborative had agreed to: a living wage for workers, OSHA training, workers' compensation, and third-party monitoring to ensure safety precautions are enacted properly. Developers rejected everything except fair pay ($13.03 per hour) until late last winter when a compromise was reached, and Endeavor agreed to provide full Better Building standards for the office portion. "We regret that they stopped short of establishing full standards for the entire site," Delp said. But Jason Thumlert, a principal at Endeavor, said he considers the agreement a "win-win. We're really excited and proud to have reached a creative solution to all the issues raised."
Throughout the property, construction workers will be paid $13.03 per hour. When workers receive OSHA training will depend on which part of the project they're working on. According to Thumlert, those working on the commercial properties will receive training on day one, but those working on the residential area will receive training at some point within two weeks of their beginning work on the project. Endeavor will offer "private alternative insurance" in place of workers' compensation.
Delp, however, remains wary about the private alternative insurance plan. In his eyes, the real win came from Cap Metro: Going forward, the transit authority will enact full Better Building standards on all their transit-oriented developments. Delp called that "an important step toward building a middle class."
The construction will not interrupt service at the Plaza Saltillo rail station or nearby bus routes.