On the eve of the Fourth of July, local architectural firm Thrower Design submitted documents to the city’s Development Services Department describing two concepts for a three-story multifamily project that would theoretically be built near the corner of East Cesar Chavez and Clara Streets.
We qualify the concept as theoretical, because the company that retained Thrower Design’s services actually claims to not have any serious plans to redevelop the block — but more on that later.
The property under consideration includes four contiguous lots on the south side of Cesar Chavez Street in the 2300 block, but these lots do not include Counter Culture, a popular East Side vegan restaurant. Each of the four lots are occupied with homes in good repair, although they date back decades — three were built in 1926. Combined, the four lots comprise about three-quarters of an acre.
In the project description, Thrower Design states that the site is proposed for a multifamily residential project with two classes of housing: apartments and townhomes. On the eastern side of the tract, right next to the Counter Culture property, would be a single building with 32 apartment units, all of them one-bedrooms. Next to this building on the west side of this property, the architect — as well as one of the conceptual renderings — describes four additional three-story townhomes, each with two bedrooms:
A second conceptual site plan submitted leaves out the townhomes and reconfigures the apartment building. Parking for the rental units is placed below the residences in both site plans, with each providing 44 spaces. The second version of the plan is below:
At present, the lots are zoned for family residences with mixed-use, and are also described by the county’s appraisal district as suitable for office use. However, they do not posess multifamily zoning and Thrower Design is not requesting a zoning change, nor is their client. Instead, Thrower stated that the type of work underway is a “pre-plan submittal development consultation.”
Unclear as to what that meant, we continued our search. The owner/developer of the site is EG USA LLC, the United States branch of EG, a real estate firm based in Sydney, Australia. EG is something of a full-service company that develops, acquires and manages properties. It hasn’t been in Austin long, but has been acquiring several properties here over the past few years – including SOCO 1 and 2 at Alpine Circle near St. Edward’s University, and West Lynn Quarter in the Clarksville neighborhood.
The Australian website for EG reports a development pipeline of $2 billion, adding, “We are dedicated to creating sustainable and cohesive urban spaces, in partnership with leading architects, engineers and construction experts.”
But that’s Australia. To date, EG USA has generally limited its presence in Austin to purchasing and holding existing real estate properties through its EG Property Management branch, and it’s not clear that its focus is going to change anytime soon. Skye Playfair Redman, the vice president of special projects at EG USA, told us that the work being done by Thrower Design is limited to a due diligence exercise, focused on exploring the future market value of the properties.
“We are currently just working out what’s possible with the site,” Redman said. If EG USA were to re-sell the land, the company wants to be prepared with a refined understanding of its potential.
“We’re having conversations with the city, but there’s no intentions for new development. We plan on just holding onto it for the moment,” she said.
One thing’s clear: EG USA treads carefully when it invests. The limited liability corporate entity registered with the state to control the East Cesar Chavez Street lots was created in January 2017. The conceptual renderings by Thrower Design date back to August 2017, and EG USA didn’t close on the properties until December 2017.
The combined appraised value of the lots is more than $3.2 million, according to Travis County records. That’s a sizeable investment, but Redman insists EG USA’s priority for the time being is to be a good landlord. The company took over at the start of this year, and is still in the process of getting to know its tenants and the neighborhood. There are certainly plenty of hurdles to new development, and EG USA is well aware of them. CodeNEXT, the city’s mammoth land use revision project, is still under scrutiny — and that creates some uncertainty.
The properties are in the Holly Neighborhood Coalition, which has been inactive for over a year, according to its last president, Ana DeFrates. It’s not clear what community participation would look like.
Another hurdle is the inventory of significant trees, of which there are quite a few, Redman said. In the end, she said, EG USA might decide that the existing houses on the site may stay “in place there, forevermore.”