“Keep Austin Weird” isn’t a great slogan, since it puts pressure on people who live here to act like they’re extraordinarily quirky and different from people in other cities — and that’s usually much more annoying than weird. But every now and then, Austin sees an authentically very weird thing worth celebrating, and this is one of those times. Would you be surprised to learn from us that it involves a tower?
La Vista de Lopez is the working title for a nine-story senior housing tower now under construction at a tiny plot of land overlooking I-35 at 809 East Ninth Street. The project contains 34 residences in an extraordinarily compact design by local firm Hatch + Ulland Owen Architects, with a few 500-square-foot apartments on each floor — the tower is allowed to rise so high thanks to the provisions of the city’s Affordability Unlocked development bonus program, since all of its apartments will be offered at affordable rates between 30 and 50 percent of the Median Family Income.
The project, financed with federal, state, and local affordable housing dollars, is a plan by the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation, a longtime local nonprofit that’s worked since the 1980s to prevent displacement on the East Side by developing affordable housing under a community land trust model — but even with all its experience developing single-family homes, duplexes, and even a nearby apartment building, the GNDC has never built anything quite like the Lopez tower.
When completed, the building will share an almost comically tiny 0.17-acre lot with the historic 1917 Routon-Alvarez-Lopez House, with the new tower essentially rising from the old home’s small backyard. The property is so compact that the GNDC’s general contractors at Franklin Construction have temporarily removed the 106-year-old house from the site, just so their construction equipment can reach that backyard. After the project’s finished, the home will be returned to the property and used as a community space for the seniors living in the apartment tower.
The "Backyard Tower" has finally gotten underway. This is the nine-story La Vista De Lopez residential building going up directly in front of the Tyndall condo project where 9th St. dead ends on a hill above the I-35 frontage road. Although it looks like the house was removed… pic.twitter.com/enKwMgY7Rc
— The ATX (@TheATX1) October 9, 2023
Once built, the Lopez tower project will be a fascinating example of adaptive reuse for a single-family property, a literal yes-in-my-backyard development that fights displacement and maximizes the value of its land without erasing the original historic residence here in the process. It’s a perfect epilogue for this property’s long history as a “holdout” surrounded by increasing growth but choosing to stay the same — the Lopez family, which owned the house until the GNDC bought it in 2015, attracted some press in the late ’80s and early ’90s by refusing to sell their land to California developers Bennett Consolidated, which planned to build a million-square-foot mall known as Capital Town Center between Eighth and 11th Street.
Though the mall plan ultimately failed, the development of multistory apartment and condo projects in the surrounding area has given the Lopez house an appearance commenters on social media often compare to the movie “Up,” except in this case the owners of the home aren’t leaving — they’re building a tower of their own to compete with the rest of the neighborhood. This makes for an awkward situation with its immediate neighbors at the Tyndall condos, built against the edge of the site in 2018. The Lopez tower as designed is absurdly effective at blocking the skyline views of several units on the western face of the Tyndall.
We have to imagine there’s some drama behind the scenes here, with the Tyndall’s developers at Momark and the building’s HOA both stating their resistance to the project — while Momark raised a more valid point about emergency vehicle access to the cramped site, the Tyndall’s HOA pursued the incredibly funny line of argument that the Lopez tower plan was somehow out of scale with other buildings in the immediate neighborhood, which is notably composed of multistory buildings. (Translation: Explicitly bringing up blocked views as an objection to an affordable housing project is rightly considered a bit gauche, so we have to make up other stuff.)
But it doesn’t seem like anyone’s stopping the Lopez tower — current city permits indicate the project will install a tower crane early next year, and GNDC executive director Mark Rogers says completion is expected sometime in 2025. Practically, we appreciate its affordable senior housing, but philosophically, we love what this building represents for Austin at large. As a case study in the potential of dense infill on small sites as a method of preserving affordability and preventing displacement, Lopez tower is downright weird, and a perfect example of how we can build when height limits and compatibility restrictions don’t arbitrarily prevent landowners from maximizing the housing capacity of small properties. ¡Viva la Vista de Lopez!