After holding out against development in a rising district of East Austin for more than 30 years, the Lopez house isn’t giving up — in fact, it might go up instead.
This historic single-family home just east of I-35 at 809 East Ninth Street, officially known as the Routon-Alvarez-Lopez House, has enjoyed a long life despite a universe of growth around it due to its ownership by the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, an affordable housing nonprofit.
An aerial view of the Lopez house. The Tyndall condos behind it are so new, this view shows them still under construction. Still, it helps you understand the orientation of the two buildings to one another.
In a nutshell, the GNDC purchases properties around East Austin’s Guadalupe neighborhood, rehabilitates or builds new homes on the land, and sells these residences to low-income buyers while maintaining its ownership of the property through a 99-year ground lease to the homeowner — this development model, known as a community land trust, is the first of its kind in Texas.
At the time of its founding in 1981, the GNDC’s stated mission of maintaining affordable single-family residences on the east side was a realistic goal, but this approach has proven inadequate against the city’s current pace of growth and ever-rising housing costs. The nonprofit, seeing several of its affordable properties actually flipped for a profit by their original low-income buyers, expanded its development focus to include multifamily projects — the first of these, La Vista de Guadalupe, opened its 22 affordable apartments at 813 East Eighth Street in 2008.
The GNDC, despite preserving the historic elements of the Lopez property, hopes to maximize the potential of this land in an remarkably unconventional way — it’s planning its second multifamily building, a six-story, 24-unit affordable senior housing tower with one floor of underground parking, in the backyard behind the Lopez house.
Though this tower will be small — actually weirdly small, owing to the constraints of its tiny .17-acre site — its impact on a very specific group of neighborhood residents will be bigger than anything downtown. Welcome to La Vista de Lopez, probably the single most unlikely tower plan currently on the boards in Austin:
If you’re familiar with the neighborhood and location of the Lopez house, you’ll immediately understand why certain people might not want a tower in this exact spot. If built to the specifications seen above, the Lopez tower would significantly block the downtown views of some western-facing units at the recently-opened Tyndall condos, located directly — and we mean directly — east of the Lopez tract. To better understand the impact of this new project on the Tyndall, we’ve superimposed drawings of both buildings to scale on top of one another, and confirmed with the Lopez tower’s developers that the positioning seen here is (roughly) accurate:
This plan creates a sensitive situation for both owners at the Tyndall and its developer, Austin’s own “humanist housing” outfit Momark. While the GNDC is a full-fledged affordable housing operation, Momark has also worked to provide affordable “missing middle” housing like East Austin’s Chestnut Commons community, and is actually overseeing a low-cost senior housing project of its own at the expansive redevelopment of East Austin’s RBJ Center site, dubbed the Hatchery.
Keeping this dedication to affordability in mind, it wouldn’t make sense for Momark to oppose the Lopez tower simply on the basis of blocked views at the Tyndall — after all, the Tyndall and Lopez plans are each designed to maximize the utility of their respective properties, and both projects operate under the same height and land-use constraints. With 24 units instead of the single affordable home sitting there now, on balance the Lopez tower plan is clearly a better use for its property — it’s just a little awkward that property is located here, which might be why the following statement from the Tyndall’s HOA is its only current comment on the matter:
We are aware that a site plan application has been submitted to the City of Austin, but at this time, the project has not been approved and is listed as inactive in the CoA permitting database. We are strong advocates for affordable housing.
Though upon our review of the plans, the proposed development presents numerous safety concerns for the residents of the Tyndall, AMLI Eastside and especially for seniors with health issues who would reside in the Lopez Tower if it is approved.
We believe the backyard of a historic single-family home on a dead-end street, is not the right place for a six-story building due to the limited access for fire, EMS and life safety services.
— Tyndall HOA
The Tyndall folks are correct that the La Vista de Lopez project is currently listed as “denied” in the city’s database of affordable housing development applications, so we asked Mark Rogers, executive director of the GNDC, if we could still expect the tower as it appears in the plans seen here. Rogers says the application with the city sought pre-development funding to complete the design work on the project, and that application was in fact denied — but the GNDC is “continuing the design work with its own funds,” and is nearly finished with the site plan review process necessary to eventually seek a permit for the building once a final design is selected.
That design, he says, will develop the Lopez property to its “highest and best use,” and should resemble the tower seen in the current plans — though he also mentions the recent passage of Austin’s Affordability Unlocked program might allow for additional height due to the 100 percent affordable nature of the project, making it eligible for a density bonus — the GNDC, he says, is exploring that option.
The Tyndall HOA and its primary developer, Terry Mitchell, has not contacted GNDC about our project. For that matter, they never discussed the design of the Tyndall project with GNDC or the neighborhood prior to starting their project. Provided there are no variances or zoning changes requirements, my thinking is that property owners have a right to develop their property within the regulations. GNDC intends to develop the property at 809 East 9th Street within the applicable regulations and codes of Austin in the same way that the Tyndall was developed.
— Mark Rogers, Executive Director, GNDC
There is clearly a lot going on between the lines in the statements issued by the respective parties behind the Tyndall and Lopez projects, and at this stage we’re not really equipped to speculate beyond what’s already on the page. Regardless of who has a stake in whether or not this tower makes it past the drawing board, its design alone makes for a fascinating piece of infill — an impressively compact integration of a historic single-family property with a modern multifamily building, fitting four units into each of its levels seemingly without much squeeze.
Historically speaking, this tower would place a very strange bow on the Lopez house’s reputation as a holdout against development. The Lopez family, who owned the property until the GNDC’s purchase in 2015, successfully resisted California real estate firm Bennett Consolidated, which attempted to buy the land for years in the 1980s and early 1990s as part of its plan for a one-million-square-foot shopping mall, office, and hotel development between East Eighth and East Eleventh Streets.
Known as Capital Town Center, the mall plan sparked resistance from area residents for fairly obvious reasons, though some supported the project as an economic benefit to the historically underserved neighborhood — sort of a surprising detail if you follow local politics these days, but you have to remember the East Austin of the 1990s was a very different place. The removal of the Lopez house, smack in the middle of the anticipated project’s location, was almost certainly necessary for the developer to receive the city’s blessing on vacating the small stretch of Ninth Street running through the future mall site — and the Lopez family refused all offers.
The mall plan eventually fizzled out, with its 30-acre land assembly sitting vacant until the piecemeal construction of the AMLI Eastside and Eleven by Windsor apartment communities more than a decade later by other companies. The Tyndall was the last large development atop the piece of land known for decades as the Bennett Tract, which surrounded the Lopez house with apartments instead of a mall.
The home became an affordable residence after the GNDC’s restoration of the property in 2016, and received historic zoning back in 2013. That means the stubborn legacy of the Lopez house will probably stick around for a while, even if it’s getting a whole lot taller in the back — finally matching the height of its new neighbors.