Look, I’m not gonna pretend like I didn’t spend a lot of time in the Luby’s cafeteria at Steck Avenue and MoPac growing up in the 1990s. Everyone with living grandparents was in that carpeted dining room at least once a month, going to town on squares of fried fish and trying to ignore the liver and onions sitting in front of everyone over 60. The decline of Luby’s starting in the 2000s is a well-documented portrait of shifting consumer preferences and the limits of nostalgia in a hungry real estate market — after the closure of the Steck cafeteria in 2021, only two locations remain in Austin, compared with five in San Antonio and a whopping 10 in Houston.
Local real estate firm Ardent Residential now owns this 2.38-acre former Luby’s site at 8176 North MoPac Expressway, with plans since 2021 to redevelop the tract with approximately 275 apartments in a project simply called Ardent Northwest Hills, including 10 percent or about 28 of those residences income-restricted to households earning 80 percent or less of the Median Family Income — that’s currently $65,450 for an individual or $93,450 for a family of four. (28 units may not sound like much, but in the affordability-challenged District 10, it’s definitely a step in the right direction.) Demolition permits filed earlier this week for the Steck property indicate that the project, its site plan approved by the city last year, could finally be moving forward.
The permit for demolition now pending with the city notes that the Luby’s building dates back to 1981, but the restaurant’s grand opening was on May 12, 1982 — meaning this location stayed open just shy of 40 years. The cafeteria site and its parking lot is located in the vicinity of the charmingly-named Dead Dog Cave, which prompted further study by Ardent Residential to avoid impacting the cave system with the footprint of the new project before securing approval from City Council. Alongside Ardent, the project’s local design team includes architects Davies Collaborative, landscape designers Benkendorfer + Associates, and civil engineering firm LJA.
Although this Luby’s location has been closed for years, we expect the visible start of demolition at the site to prompt a lot of soul-searching about Austin As It Used To Be, but let’s not pretend like trading an already-closed restaurant for lots of market-rate and affordable housing in a part of town that really needs it is such an awful trade. Besides, they sell that weirdly delicious square fish at H-E-B these days anyway.