Thursday, June 26, 2014

Plaza Saltillo: Lost Opportunity for Austin's Families with Children

After 20 years of on-and-off-again planning efforts, Cap Metro has finally selected a developer for the prime 11-acre tract of public land, the Saltillo Tract.  The closely watched 5-3 vote by the Cap Metro board was extremely disappointing, with the selection of a development plan by Endeavor that fails to include affordable housing for families with children and largely ignores the cultural and historical context of the tract. 

The 11-acre Saltillo Tract is bordered by Plaza Saltillo, which was intended to be the hub for a Hispanic cultural and commercial district called Ole Mexico. Those plans for the area now seem permanently out of reach, with the tract sitting in the heart of a rapidly gentrifying area, where low-income African-American and Hispanic families are quickly being replaced with higher income and primarily Anglo households, and local businesses face dramatically escalating property values. The demographic trends are contributing to large drops in enrollment at AISD schools in the area

Neighborhood leaders supported the Saltillo Tract development proposal by the other project finalist, Saltillo Collaborative, which would have generated 170 units of affordable housing developed by leading providers of affordable housing for children in Austin, Foundation Communities and Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation (GNDC). The bulk of the affordable units would have been multi-bedroom apartments accessible for families with children, supported by other child-friendly amenities. GNDC, which has a long history of working in the community, maintains a long list of low-income families with children waiting to access affordable housing in the neighborhood. Many of the families on the waiting list  are Hispanic families who grew up the neighborhood but were priced out and now want to return. 

The City of Austin's Families with Children Task Force, and most recently the City of Austin/Travis County/AISD workgroup on Schools and Families (both of which I served on), identified the need for more affordable, family-friendly housing in our urban core and near transit as a critical need in our community. The communities surrounding the Saltillo development have also long identified affordable housing for families as a high priority. And a recent survey by the University of Texas's Community and Regional Planning Program found that the majority of low-income households with children who commute more than 10 miles to work in Austin want to live close to their jobs in the urban core. 

Cap Metro's selection of the Endeavor team to redevelop the Saltillo Tract follows the unfortunate lead set by the City for the recent redevelopment of other important tracts of public land, including the Green Water and Seaholm sites downtown, none of which will include affordable units for families with children. Today, the Austin City Council has an opportunity to chart a new course when it considers the redevelopment of a city-owned parcel at 411 Chicon, the one remaining sizable tract of publicly-owned land in Central East Austin that is ripe for redevelopment.

Back in 2003, Cap Metro literature stated: "The overriding goal for the Saltillo District Redevelopment Project is to construct an exemplary, compact community."  By no means should the selection of the Endeavor project--a project that leaves out affordable housing for children on such a large tract of publicly-owned land in Central East Austin--be considered exemplary. 

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