‘It’s not for us'
Students worry redevelopment of East Riverside will leave them without affordable housing.
Rani Kidane found a letter posted on the door of her East Riverside apartment March of 2018.
“It was taped to my door, and it was talking about something like connectivity to the Oracle Campus,” said Kidane, a UT Health Science Center at Austin graduate student. “I read it and I was like “what?’ and then I didn’t think too much much about it because, you know, I was just confused.”
But then Kidane saw videos from Defend our Hoodz, an anti-gentrification community organization, explaining that a rezoning application had been filed to change the Town Lake apartment complex into a high end housing, retail and office space. That’s when Kidane began to worry.
“I started to find out more and more, and I was like ‘wow, this is really scary,’” Kidane said.
With a pending rezoning application for Town Lake and four neighboring student apartment complexes a year later, Kidane and tenants in roughly a thousand apartment units are still anxiously waiting to learn about the future of their housing on East Riverside.
East Riverside has long served as an affordable housing alternative to West Campus. But the Riverside area, located southeast of UT and near downtown in the historically black and Latino East Austin, is undergoing a redevelopment process that UT students fear will eliminate its affordable housing.
Project 4700 East Riverside
As The Daily Texan first reported in April 2018, the letter Kidane received was to inform her and her neighbors that Nimes Capital— which owns the land on which the Town Lake, Ballpark North and the Quad apartments sit — was seeking permission from the City of Austin to rezone and ultimately re-develop them into a mixed-use building project.
The rezoning request has been postponed indefinitely because of ongoing city reviews, including a traffic study, said Scott Grantham, the city case manager for the application. A community meeting, which was marked by protests, was held this March, and Grantham said the request is now estimated to reach two public hearings in June and August. The City Council is ultimately in charge of final approval.
The rezoning of the area as a mixed-use project would allow Nimes Capital and its partner Presidium Group to carry out their vision for what they call 4700 East Riverside, formerly known as Project Catalyst, beginning in 2022.
Michael Whellan, the attorney for the project, said 4700 East Riverside would add park space and “a mix of housing, retail, restaurants, offices, medical offices, and a hotel.” The 97-acre project, neighboring the Oracle Campus, could increase the current 1,308 apartment units into 4,709 multi-family units, according to the rezoning application.
And Whellan said the project would add income-restricted housing for lower-income residents not present in the current apartments. The project could provide between 400 to 565 income-restricted units for rental rates estimated at $900, according to Whellan.
‘It’s not for us’
When neuroscience junior Jessica Mesa first read an article detailing the proposal in 2018, she panicked. Mesa moved into a room in Ballpark North, for which she said she pays $450 per month, after her freshman year because she could no longer afford an on-campus dorm.
“I don’t know where else I would want to move or could move,” Mesa said. “There is a bit of like a helplessness kind of feeling of like, you know, I’m stuck in this situation.”
The proposal reminded Mesa of the gentrification in other parts of Austin and back in her Corpus Christi hometown. This led Mesa to joined Defend Our Hoodz, which has mounted multiple protests against the project over the last year.
“It’s not for us,” Mesa said. “(Developers) are gonna say, ‘Oh, you know, its development, it’s going to make progress … But the reality is — sadly, these ideas of, revitalization, or development — it’s never really for the people that live there currently.”
Developers say that because the apartments primarily serve students, who often lease rooms for a couple of years, the project wouldn’t displace long-time residents like other developments have in East Austin.
However, Mesa said she knows residents who aren’t current students, including her sister who graduated from UT years ago and still lives in Quad West.
Mike McHone, a long-time West Campus realtor, said the increasing affordability of West Campus brought on by the City’s 2004 University Neighborhood Overlay plan used to force Riverside apartments to have more competitive pricing.
“What has happened in response to UNO, is that units in Riverside have cut their rates to compete,” McHone said. “But at some point in time they can’t cut their rates anymore and more of those projects are being redeveloped to other uses.”
Kidane, who lived in West Campus as an undergraduate thanks to scholarships, said her current income and financial aid no longer allow her to afford an apartment in West Campus.
Neuroscience junior Desiree Ortega lived in West Campus when she first transferred to UT in 2016, but then the first-generation college student’s mother lost her job — just as her dad worked a second job to support her. So Ortega moved to Ballpark North, where said she is able to pay about $200 less than her West Campus lease.
After facing an assault in her apartment complex last fall, Ortega said she hopes to leave the area but has been limited by her budget.
“I want to leave, but, I can’t because I can’t afford anything else,” Ortega said.
Kidane and Mesa say they would like the city to invest in the current apartment complexes without sacrificing affordability.
“I want to see an investment in the community, not just like, what you want this community to look like,” Kidane said. “We need rent that is not going to drive people out of their homes or into eviction.”
Jake Wegmann, a Community and Regional Planning assistant professor, said the redevelopment of Riverside, including project East Riverside 4700, may be unavoidable.
“I think it’s inevitable,” Wegmann said, explaining that the market will drive the direction of redevelopment in the area.
To cope with the rising cost of living, Grantham said the city plans to use a $250 million bond to help implement a Strategic Housing Blueprint for the development of new and preservation of existing affordable housing.
UT may also need to step in and offer more affordable housing options if it hopes to serve students from lower-income backgrounds, Wegmann said.
“In many ways, UT is a leader in student diversity and inclusion, but I think Austin’s getting so expensive that housing is becoming a threat to that value,” Wegmann said.
The city or University could look into partnering with nonprofits to keep the existing affordable apartments in the area, Wegmann said.
If the rezoning is approved, Whellan said long-time residents impacted by the first phase of development would be given the “opportunity to move into other Quad complexes scheduled for later redevelopment.” Qualified long-term residents will be given priority to move into the first income-restricted apartments, Whellan said.
But Kidane said she fears the looming redevelopment of her apartment complex will eventually spread and hurt neighboring residents of East Riverside.
“It’s just an affordable place to live,” she said. “So if this isn’t here, my goodness, where are they going to go?”
News reporter Jackson Barton contributed reporting to this story.