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The slow train to Plaza Saltillo

Will a development almost 20 years in the making still work for the neighborhood around it?

A weeknight stroll around the construction site that will be the Plaza Saltillo District—a mixed-use development rising just east of downtown Austin—reveals the juxtapositions expected of a transitioning neighborhood. South of the 10-acre site, kids play basketball in a small corner park while 20-somethings whiz by on electric scooters.

Two men chat on a stoop of the Chalmers Courts city housing authority apartments, surrounded by small-scale, closely spaced houses in various states of renovation. The historic Scoot Inn bar, the tiny modular Kasita house prototype, a coffee-roasting facility, a pedicab warehouse, and a mammoth metal scrap yard fill in the gaps.

To the north is a slightly different story—a tale of change that’s further along on the gentrification timeline. Once-industrial buildings that now contain coffeehouses, architects’ offices, and a punk-rock bike shop face the construction zone. Adjacent streets are full of bars, food trailers, and restaurants with craft cocktails and small plates—businesses that replaced lively Tejano clubs and once-popular Mexican food joints in a methodical eastward progression—along with new, mid-rise condo and apartment buildings, boutique hotels, and the kind of barber shop where you get Shiner’s latest seasonal brew with your cut.

The 10-acre tract between the two, where the planned development is going up, lies in the heart of a historically Latino neighborhood, called East Cesar Chavez, that was segregated from the rest of Austin in ways only slightly subtler than those directed at the city’s African-American communities: via deed restrictions and private covenants rather than outright legal mandate. As Austin grew and legally mandated segregation ceased, the city remained informally separated by IH-35, built along a north-south corridor where a wide avenue previously marked the divide between the neighborhoods of non-Hispanic white people and those of the city’s Latino and black populations.

The development site in question, which is separated from downtown on the west by the freeway, was originally a city rail yard. Abandoned in the 1980s, it became a storage area for electric transformers that were removed from all over the city because they leaked toxins known as PCBs. According to longtime East Cesar Chavez leader Lori Cervenak Renteria, the neighborhood worked with the city to clean up and remove deteriorating, empty warehouses from the site. Nevertheless, it stayed a bare plot of dirt, train tracks, and gravel for more than two decades.

The surrounding neighborhood remained largely Latino and continued to develop as a cultural community with strong bonds and generational ties. It incorporated a manageable influx of new residents and visitors to the area’s thriving restaurants and, to a lesser extent, bars. (It’s helpful to remember that Austin wasn’t always the “City of the Eternal Boom.”) Around 1990, the installation of underground fiber-optic cable on East Fifth Street attracted “fledgling high-tech business people,” said Cervenak Renteria. Along with artists and other creatives, they began converting “existing cheap and dilapidated warehouses,” to living and working spaces, kicking off the area’s transformation. At the same time, she said, neighborhoods around Saltillo worked with the Austin Police Department to be a “guinea pig for pioneering community policing.”

Rendering of Plaza Saltillo development, currently under construction
Courtesy of Michael Hsu Office of Architecture

Unfortunately, while bonds strengthened, roots deepened, and the neighborhood became more inviting, the new money didn’t necessarily make it to all of the area’s traditional residents. According to Cervenak Renteria, while a majority of East Cesar Chavez’s residents had always been “working class,” there was still enough of a low-income population (and enough public housing) to allow it to qualify for government-funded health, family, and community services—much of which it will lose, she said, now that people with higher incomes are migrating there.

Nevertheless, the income gap between area residents and that of other Austinites persisted, though it has narrowed. Recent statistics published by Census Reporter (which uses U.S. census data) put the tract’s 2016 median family income at $42,917, about two-thirds of what the site reports as a citywide median of $60,939.

In 1992, a group of neighborhood business owners called Olé Mexico came up with an idea to improve the neighborhood’s economy by promoting its popular Mexican restaurants and other attractions. Olé Mexico’s vision included a plan for a lively outdoor plaza with music, vendors, and a promenade. The latter part of the vision—a plaza that occupies a single block on East Fifth Street, now on the edge of the new development—was realized in 1998. Dubbed (now somewhat confusingly) Plaza Saltillo, it was built in 1998 in cooperation with Olé Mexico, its namesake town in Mexico (Austin’s sister city), and area transportation authority Capital Metro, which at that point had acquired the old rail yard from the city and had ambitious plans for an area-wide light-rail system that would make the plaza one of its stops.

The structure, made of pink stucco with wrought iron, tile, and other regionally resonant embellishments, was designed to replicate Spanish and Mexican plazas, often hubs of activity and informal gathering spaces in the towns where they’re located. The infrastructure—it includes a central bandstand, vendor stalls, and large, shaded walkways with high ceilings and a series of arched wall openings—reflects the intent of Olé Mexico and other members of the group responsible for its creation and completion: the encouragement of economic development and activity that embraced what the neighborhood’s traditional culture had to offer.

All that was very exciting—until Capital Metro’s light-rail plan was rejected by Austin voters in 2000, meaning the plaza would remain in a liminal, transitless locale for the foreseeable future. Envisioned as a commuter hub, it instead became a cheerful but little-used site overlooking the still-lifeless railyard, an increasingly conspicuous gap in a neighborhood experiencing rapid redevelopment on both sides.

By 2004, Capital Metro had managed to wrangle voter approval for the city’s single commuter line. After six years of construction, the plaza finally became a metro stop—a prime location for the kind of master-planned development the neighborhood had yet to see, as well as a repository for the hopes of different factions for the East Side’s future.

Between the time the original plaza was built and when it became a working transit stop, the city adopted a neighborhood-based land-use planning system. Working with city staff members, formally designated neighborhoods and other kinds of districts created their own future land-use maps, which then went through a city approval process. The city adopted East Cesar Chavez’s plan in 1999. Over the next 10 years, it also worked with a development group and the neighborhood to create a master plan for the Saltillo District—including the speculative transit-oriented development.

A station plan envisioned back in 2008 didn’t get going until 2013 (due to the recession and other factors). The Capital Metro board then issued a request for proposals that would meet four goals: 1) increase transit ridership, 2) generate long-term revenue and optimize value of assets, 3) create and promote equitable mixed-use and mixed-income communities around transit, and 4) respond to the community’s vision and values.

In the decade that it took Capital Metro to take root in what became the Plaza Saltillo District, the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood had gotten hot, attracting more tourists and locals who had never crossed the freeway with its grassroots entertainment district. Real estate heated up as well, and continues to do so: August MLS numbers put the median price of homes on the market at $599,000, compared to the Austin Board of Realtors’s July 2018 estimate of a $320,000 median for the metro area. Activists and longtime residents have pushed back against the increase in living costs and the loss of central community members, and many of the neighborhood contact team’s members, including Cervenak Renteria, spent years working with development groups and Capital Metro to create a plan that would incorporate and serve the longstanding community. Neighbors who were active in the process knew that, legally speaking, there was a limit to how much impact they could have over property owned by the metro authority, she said; the neighborhood’s best bet was to work with the Plaza Saltillo team to get what benefits it could from plans to fill its longstanding, long-studied void.

In 2014, the Capital Metro board of directors selected a developer for the project: Endeavor Real Estate Group, a local company best known for developing the Domain and its offshoots in north Austin, a group of mixed-use complexes that some labeled “Austin’s second downtown.” Two years later, the board approved Endeavor’s master plan, for which influential local firm Michael Hsu Office of Architecture is lead architect.

Those plans, which morphed significantly over the years, ultimately included 800 apartments, 120,000 square feet of office space, and 110,000 square feet of retail space, as well as wide paths intended to make public areas more bicycle- and pedestrian- (and now, one assumes, scooter-) friendly. The plan reserved 25 percent of the apartments for low-income units, some of which would be “floating units”—filled by qualified applicants regardless of location in the building.

While that plan received the neighborhood team’s blessing, what happened next did not. In March 2017, Endeavor and Capital Metro proposed a zoning change to allow a 125-foot-tall office building, as well as taller residential buildings, doubling the density (from 112,500 square feet to 259,000 square feet), and the scaling back of affordable housing units—all significant changes to the originally approved plan.

As the proposed changes moved forward to a City Council vote, neighborhood opposition to the revisions grew; representatives and council members also clashed over the number of two-bedroom affordable units—the smallest reasonable size for families with children—in the plan.

In the end, due to arcane details in the city’s density rules, Endeavor got whatever the opposite of Sophie’s choice is. If it wanted to, it could build an office building as tall as 125 feet and offer 141 affordable rental units (17.6 percent of the total 800 units—the city would be responsible for the 59 additional affordable units that would meet density bonus requirements). Forty-one of those would be “floating” units, 25 percent of which would be two-bedrooms.

On the other hand, if the developers decided not to increase density, it would forgo a city density bonus and pay $600,000 to the city of Austin’s affordable housing fund—rather than add 40 more affordable units that would be required by the zoning change and modified plan approval. In the final agreement on the zoning change, Endeavor agreed to pay an additional $540,000 to the affordable-housing fund. Capital Metro will also pay $540,000 into the fund.

In a more neighborhood-friendly development, in February it was announced that Plaza Saltillo would be home to Austin’s first Whole Foods Market 365—the chain’s lower-cost alternative to its original brand.

By the time bulldozers broke ground on the project last year, the vision of the original Plaza Saltillo—a place to celebrate as well as sell the products of a place with a strongly identified Latino culture—had been almost completely abandoned. The 20 years that passed between its construction and that of the current development saw an unprecedented level of growth (in concert with that of Austin as a whole), one that included the establishment of businesses and housing targeted at young, single people or couples without children; college students and graduates; and those with higher incomes than that of the community’s more traditional demographic.

As Sabino “Pio” Renteria—the Austin City Council member who represents the district that East Cesar Chavez is in (and who is married to Lori Cervenak Renteria)—has put it, “now the gentrifiers are being gentrified.”

And while low-income housing and, to a lesser extent, social services are still available—in addition to the Chalmers Courts, the historic Santa Rita Courts, the first federal housing project completed under the 1937 Housing Act, is still active and a few blocks away—how older and newer residents will interact, if they do at all, is anyone’s guess.

In light of the master plan, it’s worthwhile to consider whom Saltillo Plaza is ultimately meant to serve. While Endeavor has not released details of prospective office or retail tenants, it signed leases with such food and beverage establishments as Barcelona Wine Bar, the Ginger Man, Tarka Indian Kitchen, Epoch Coffee, Snooze, and gelato-maker Dolce Neve, most of which have a proven track record in other parts of town among the same demographic that has moved into the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood over the past two decades.

On the other hand, the grocery store could be a hit, depending on how low the prices really are. As Endeavor principal Jason Thumlert pointed out in an emailed response to questions, “One of the most consistent things we heard a wide range of community members say was that they wanted access to healthy, fresh, high-quality food at great prices. That’s exactly why the local Whole Foods Market 365 concept is such a stellar fit for the surrounding neighborhood.”

In addition, he stated that the “pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly infrastructure,” which is slated to open in June 2019, is intended to create a “well-designed, engaging, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly community”—one with expansive sidewalks, pocket parks, and an extension of the Lance Armstrong Bikeway, which will connect East Austin to downtown. There will be an acre of open space “woven throughout, offering ideal places for picnics, fitness, rest and recreation,” he wrote.

Perhaps that space will help fulfill the intent of the original Plaza Saltillo, now an active metro stop adjacent to the development, creating a gathering space for the surrounding community. And, in truth, a planned community with designated affordable housing, community facilities, and a grocery store will likely better serve neighborhood needs than whatever a free-for-all of buildings and businesses with private owners would have come up with.

“The neighborhood is going to get a good chunk of affordable rental housing, family units, very low-income senior housing, small businesses, which are the real job-generators in Austin. We’re going to have a grocery store.” said Cervenak Renteria. In addition to retail and restaurants, she said it will also get professional services, such as doctors and dentists, that have been there for residents who qualified as low-income but not for people with incomes and insurance that allowed them to pay providers directly.

In an optimistic vision for Plaza Saltillo, it would become a place that brings in some longtime neighborhood shops and restaurants, welcomes people who don’t necessarily live or work there to enjoy its public spaces, and includes some acknowledgement of—rather than attempts to replicate—past and present neighborhood qualities and traditions. As then-UT-student Emily Mixon wrote in an essay on The End of Austin website, “[r]edevelopment is always occurring—centuries upon centuries of it—but it is equally built on histories torn to the ground. When we see the present, we must remember not only past structures, but the intents, attitudes, and communities that they represent.”