Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

East Austin

Dateline: 11:52 am April 7, 2008 Filed under:

Who are all these people with bright yellow bags walking around taking pictures of buildings and sidewalks!? The good people of Austin must think we are crazy. We were given yellow tote bags as part of registration, and everywhere I go I see someone with their bag and camera, standing in a median of a road or some awkward place, taking just the right photo that shows the perfect example of a transect zone, mixed-use, or simply an appropriately-sized sidewalk. Guilty, your honor. Such is the life of an urbanist.

About 40 of us camera and bag toting new urbanists got a tour of Austin’s gentrifying east side. For years a working class area, the east side is home to a significant African American and Hispanic population. Being largely cut off from downtown by Interstate 35 didn’t help the economic conditions of the area.

This is slowly changing, as the availability of inexpensive sites has drawn developers of condos, apartments and live/work units. Several projects have been built or are underway in the area of the east side that is less than a mile away from downtown. Early projects bought land for $5 per square foot and sold units for just $90,000 – not too long ago, either!

Among the stops along the way were the 501 Studios and 6th + Brushy, an office/retail renovation and a mixed-use loft and commercial project, both developed by Richard Kooris, 1111 E. 11th Street and the East Village Lofts, a commercial buildng and a mixed-use project developed by Esperanza Development, and the Pedernales, Este, TwentyOne24, and Saltillo Lofts, all developed by Constructive Ventures. Saltillo Lofts was also featured in a ULI case study that I wrote in 2007.

With gentrification comes tension, as existing residents deal with rising home prices. A very good article in the New York Times in December of 2006 spells out the issues.

Frankly, I really like the neighborhood for its character. It has some neat old homes, good restaurants, including Cisco’s, complete with its picture of Willie Nelson on the wall (tell me, what Austin restaurant, bar or club doesn’t have a picture of Willie Nelson hanging on the wall?). I think the new development and renovations have a lot of character. Although I understand the issues of gentrification there, I applaud the city and residents of East Austin for trying to keep the character of the neighborhood intact while allowing development to occur.

Commuter rail service starts later this year, with a stop in East Austin. The area west of the station at Saltillo Plaza is planned to be a significant TOD. It will be very interesting to see how the neighborhood changes in the coming years.

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