We’re mere months away from the completion of Oracle’s corporate campus on South Lakeshore Boulevard, and as the East Riverside corridor gentrifies, there’s been some concern about the area’s relative lack of retail options in comparison with the massive boom in multifamily housing stretching nearly to the airport.
As I touched on earlier this year, it’s a gap many developers are probably itching to fill, as the region seems poised to become Austin’s next “next big thing” — since you can never have too many of those. So why not fill the gap and bring density to the region at the same time? Why not build a massive mixed-use project adjacent to the Oracle campus? Why not ask more rhetorical questions?
A development to meet these needs may actually be in the pipeline near the corner of East Riverside Drive and Pleasant Valley Road, practically within yelling distance of the Oracle site, but its exact nature remains kind of mysterious at the moment. Bear with me as I deftly combine a small quantity of knowledge with a hefty dose of idle speculation — you know, that thing I do every day.
Its name is Project Catalyst, and most of what we know about this potential 79-acre mixed-use development comes from an Austin Business Journal article that dropped nearly a year ago. Since then, we’ve seen a few minor bubbles of info on the project, but nothing conclusive enough to satisfy all our needs. Over the last week or so, public interest in large-scale office developments in Austin has hit a fever pitch, for some reason, so now feels like a great time to revisit this project and lay out all the details we’ve got at the moment.
In 2014 and 2015, Los Angeles investment firm Nimes Capital purchased four adjacent apartment complexes north of East Riverside Drive and straddling both sides of Wickersham Lane. The apartments, which Nimes describes as oriented toward housing for UT students, were rebranded after their acquisition as the Ballpark Apartments, with north, south, east, and west complexes. And hey, whaddaya know — Nimes Capital now has an office in downtown Austin, in the 5th + Colorado tower.
Last year, Nimes partnered with real estate developer JLL Austin to market the site as a potential location for a large mixed-use development, with hopes to announce a buyer or partnering firm by the end of the year — which didn’t happen, at least not as far as I know. We got a better look at the project’s potential in this video, posted last year:
What’s most interesting about this video, once you get over the corny clips of fit people jogging and smiling office workers posing with coffee, is the imagery we’re provided.
Though it’s obviously speculative and delivered with marketing in mind, the verticality and density of the imagined development seen here would represent something along the lines of the Domain in North Austin — though the Catalyst site is only about a quarter of the Domain’s size.
Regardless, if something like this was built in proximity to the existing multifamily developments and elephant in the room that is the Oracle campus, the odds of this area being unironically described as a “second downtown” go up at least a little. You could realize about 30 percent of what’s shown in these renderings and still completely transform southeast Austin’s retail market — and that’s before you even factor in possible corporate tenants.
The Catalyst development as outlined in the ABJ article I mentioned earlier would occupy all four of the Nimes-owned apartment sites, with a combined total space of 79 acres.
- 49 acres of multi-story development with about 30 acres of greenbelt that would feed into the adjacent 400-acre Roy G. Guerrero Park.
- Nine million square feet of total development potential with building heights averaging between eight and 20 stories
- 6,060 units of multifamily
- Hotel project recommended to support the residential and commercial elements.
— Austin Business Journal, September 2016
We didn’t hear any further details about this project until May of this year, when real estate firm CBRE released marketing materials for the corporate office component of the Catalyst development. There are some distinct differences you’ll notice between the JLL marketing from last year, and the CBRE marketing from a few months ago.
The mention of a possible million-square-foot corporate campus designed for a single tenant certainly had some urban design-minded folks talking once Amazon dropped its RFP last week for a second headquarters.
The document outlines a need for a minimum of 500,000 square feet of building space, at least in the first phase of the project — that requirement expands to a total square footage requirement of up to 8 million by 2027. The Catalyst site certainly isn’t perfect, and could only meet that square footage requirement by going vertical, which would require some rezoning.
Here’s where things might get a little disappointing. Notice the renderings in that brochure on the right — while CBRE is focused on the office sections of the Catalyst development, they still include the mixed-use stuff in their rendering, and you’ll see it’s lost a significant amount of height.
If height like what we saw in last year’s marketing material was something a potential developer wanted to include in this project, a bit of rezoning would have to be in order — by my estimate, about half the site is zoned Urban Residential, and the other half Neighborhood Mixed-Use, categories that have height limits of about 40 and 60 feet respectively.
And hey, if rezoning these sites allows for the verticality we saw in the JLL drawings, I’m for it, man — but the Austin Planning Commission might not be quite as excited, considering that the development would take over a site currently occupied by relatively low-cost student-oriented housing. Those kids need somewhere to live, and Domain 2: Domainier might not be in their price range. The massive economic benefit of this kind of development justifies its existence in my mind, but I also don’t think it’s going to show up without some controversy.
One last detail you may have missed from the CBRE brochure is this sweet map doing about as much speculation as I do, by including urban rail lines on East Riverside Drive and a pedestrian bridge across Lady Bird Lake near the Oracle campus. Although we voted against that urban rail line in 2014, it’s obviously something Capital Metro’s thought about in detail, and probably isn’t dead forever.
As for the pedestrian bridge, it’s definitely part of the city’s master plan for redeveloping the Holly Shores parkland across the river from the Oracle site, but the timeline on that whole thing is pretty unclear.
With all those loose ends I just waved in your face, now’s the time for me to get some kind of carefully-written quote from a developer that doesn’t reveal much, but is positive and vague enough to keep everyone hyped about the project. Well, about that — at time of publishing, I’ve attempted to contact multiple folks at CBRE, JLL Austin and Nimes Capital via phone and email, and so far, the only answer I get is always the same: “We’re not authorized to comment at this time.”