Martin Barrera surveyed acres of land – much of it undeveloped – from a hill in far East Austin on a recent Thursday morning.
“You can see this is Colony Park on this side, and it comes to right about there and then it just stops," said Barrera, a project manager with the City of Austin’s Economic Development Department. "We’ll essentially continue that type of development over and across.”
As he spoke, Barrera pointed to a portion of 208 acres the city bought in 2001. The land lies between the neighborhoods of Colony Park and Lakeside, between 183 and 130.
The city is looking for a developer to make good on a plan for the area developed by city staff and the community in 2014. Last week, Austin accepted the first of two rounds of requests from developers. The city hopes to bring a developer and a negotiated deal to City Council by the summer.
The fact that the city owns the land gives it some leverage in getting what the plan envisions – specifically, more than 3,000 housing units, 1 million square feet of commercial space, and a rail station. The plan also asks that 20 percent of this new housing be affordable to families making less than $65,100 a year. That kind of bargaining power is unusual for Austin.
“It’s very rare. It hasn’t happened for the city since Mueller,” said Barrera, referring to the city’s redevelopment of 700 acres where the municipal airport once sat. He said the city is using lessons learned from the design of Mueller – for example, the mixing of housing types and commercial space – in imagining the new development near Colony Park.
“I think what we have is even more confidence that it works – that New Urbanism works – that by mixing uses that you’re able to create walkable, pedestrian-friendly, tight-knit, compact and connected communities,” he said.
For Barbara Scott, who moved to Colony Park with her husband more than four decades ago, the anticipated new development is more about economic opportunity and less about bringing an urban lifestyle to far East Austin.
“Most of the housing out here was for veterans or for military,” Scott said. When the Air Force base closed in 1993, she said, many families sold their homes and moved; economic opportunity in the area dried up.
“They refer to us as a food desert. We’re just a desert period,” she said. “We don’t have a grocery store. You can’t sit down and eat; there’s not a restaurant out here.”
According to the most recent Census estimates, the median household income in the area is roughly $48,712 compared to more than $60,000 for the whole city. The average commute for residents in the area, which is roughly 10 miles from downtown, is longer than for people living in other neighborhoods.
Barrera said the development, which is 10 miles from downtown, could give Capital Metro more reason to bring a rail stop to the area. The agency has long-proposed a Green Line, which would connect eastern suburbs to the city. As some of the city’s long-time residents are pushed farther east because of rising housing costs, Scott said, new development in the Colony Park area has many people paying attention.
“There’s so many eyes watching and ears listening to this area now,” he said.
Correction: This story initially said the city's plan included 10,000 square feet of commercial space, not 1 million. The caption also incorrectly said the plan included Walter E. Long Park.