By Marty Toohey
Published: 9:44 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012
With 208 acres of rolling, city-owned land as a backdrop, Austin officials announced Wednesday that the city would be creating a mixed-income, mixed-use, environmentally friendly development in a hardscrabble slice of far East Austin.
City officials envision, in at least the most general terms, something similar to the Mueller development, which is being built in stages on the site of the former Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, also in East Austin.
The process of figuring out exactly what to build in Colony Park and how to get it done will take three years, according to city officials. Among the possibilities: a partnership or set of partnerships between the city and private interests.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded Austin a $3 million grant to create a master plan for the site.
“We want to create a community that is affordable but has other things,” such as housing that is
energy- and water-efficient and close to jobs, said Anthony Snipes, chief of staff for City Manager Marc Ott. “When you have 208 acres, there is so much that can be done.”
That land is part of a 258-acre purchase the city made in 2001. Fifty acres were set aside for parkland; the rest cost $2.8 million, paid by the city-run housing corporation using city and federal money.
The development would be designed to transform Colony Park, an isolated, predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhood miles from a major grocery store and other amenities, and which has seen high unemployment and crime. Reputed members of the Mexican Mafia were recently arrested in the area.
The city recently built a recreation center for the area and named it after Dorothy Turner, an Austin civil rights activist who lived in Colony Park — and promptly disappointed residents by closing it two months ago after finding structural problems.
Snipes and other city officials were careful to say Wednesday that, although they have a broad outline of what they would like to accomplish, they have left most details to be fleshed out later. For instance, the city will have to ensure that new traffic does not overwhelm Colony Park, Snipes said.
City officials said they didn’t know yet how much low-income housing would be part of the development, or whether it would come in the form of houses or apartments, or how low income housing targets would be met (for instance, whether the city would pay a landlord to offer rents at less than market value).
“Historically, it’s not a good idea to concentrate poverty,” said Betsy Spencer, director of the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Office. “That’s why we want a mix (of incomes). What that mix is hasn’t been decided yet.”
Adrienne Isom, a resident of the neighboring Lakeside community, said some decisions should not take three years.
For instance, Isom said, children in the area have already beaten trails through the city’s 208 acres to get from their homes to Overton Elementary School and the recreation center. She said some of the property should be developed into a greenbelt to serve those children and the community in general.
“I’m a hiker and biker,” Isom said. “There’s nowhere here to hike and bike.”
The Colony Park proposal is part of a city effort to encourage people of varying incomes to live close enough to their jobs and shopping to walk, ride bicycles or take mass transit. The general idea is to avert urban sprawl. In neighborhoods outside the city core, city officials want to encourage development in self-contained clusters along rail lines, such as the proposed Elgin-to-downtown “Green Line,” which would pass nearby.
That was also the idea behind Mueller.
The City Council envisioned the former municipal airport as a walkable and environmentally conscious urban village. The city conveyed the airport property to Catellus Development Group, the master developer, which in turn is selling the land to other developers. Under the deal, Catellus received the land in exchange for taking on the risk of building the infrastructure and selling the land.
Catellus has claimed more than $100 million to cover the cost of demolishing the former airport facilities and building needed water lines, roads and other infrastructure.
But city officials say the deal is worth the investment. More than 3,000 people now work at the Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas, adjacent medical and research facilities and the retail center in Mueller. The development is on pace to sell a quarter of its homes to families earning less than 80 percent of the area’s median family income.