It’s kind of cliche at this point to mention how much a particular area of East Austin has changed. Still, if the breakneck pace of development on this side of town continues, it’s in our best interest to make this growth as smart as possible. That’s the intended goal of the Transit Oriented-Development (TOD) known as Chestnut Plaza emerging around the MLK Jr. Capital MetroRail station, which has completely transformed the corner of East MLK Jr. Boulevard and Alexander Avenue in a little more than a decade.
The city first designated the areas around most stations of the MetroRail’s Red Line as TOD zones in 2005, part of an effort to increase both housing density and affordability in areas close enough to easily access these rail stations on foot, which in theory should raise ridership and reduce the need for commutes via car.
The MLK Jr. station opened in 2010, but the first salvo of development in its TOD zone delivered back in 2008 with Chestnut Commons, an “urban village” of condos, townhomes, and single-family homes priced moderately enough to provide housing for Austin’s working class.
Developed by Momark, the folks behind the redevelopment of the RBJ Center property, these brightly-colored homes — dig the photo at the top of this article — actually walk the tightrope of providing 64 units of additional housing while fitting in with the neighbors. It’s really something to see!
Satellite views of the MLK Jr. Station area from 2002 and 2017, with the extent of the site’s new roads and development visible. Images: Google Earth / USGS
But Chestnut Commons was only the first phase of Chestnut Plaza, the name for the area’s larger TOD project. By 2017, we’ve seen the completion of five separate mixed-use residential buildings by developer Greystar all under the name Platform Apartments, along with office buildings housing local nonprofit organizations PeopleFund, Creative Action, and the Sustainable Food Center.
The SFC also operates a community garden just across the tracks, and earlier plans for the TOD describe an outdoor amphitheater and other park amenities in the pipeline for the space — though it’s unclear if or when they’ll materialize.
It’s a little removed from the action taking place at the intersection of Alexander Avenue and East MLK Jr. Boulevard, but the M Station Apartments, located a couple of blocks farther north up the rail line, are also an important part of the TOD.
Developed by affordable housing nonprofit Foundation Communities, the complex reserves all of its units for residents earning 80 percent or less of the state’s determined median family income for the region. Along with Chestnut Commons, M Station is the only other residential option in the MLK Jr. TOD zone priced below market rates.
So, why are we talking about this? You might have noticed from the more recent satellite photo in the comparison slider above, showing the extent of development at the site, that two pieces of the puzzle are missing — I’ve highlighted them below, along with some street names so you can catch your bearings:
The area highlighted in yellow will soon see an additional building for 202 more units of the Platform Apartments, which is noteworthy but not very surprising since it’s already surrounded by a bunch of buildings all under that same residential brand. Here’s what that highlighted yellow space looks like on the ground:
Looking back at the map up there, the plot of land across the street to the south highlighted in pink is actually the reason you’re reading this — you just don’t know it yet!
Instead of another Platform Apartment building, the site next door to Chestnut’s Plaza’s nonprofit offices will soon see the groundbreaking for The Rail at MLK, a five-story mixed-use building by Lonestar Development Partners that will add 235 apartment units to the TOD zone, along with retail space on the ground floor. Judging by the rendering below, it looks like the project is going to eat a chunk of that parking lot space in front of the nonprofit offices and become neighbors with some of the Chestnut Commons homes:
I don’t think this rendering is brand-spanking-new, but I hadn’t seen it before — and since the project just filed its tower crane permit this week, with documents indicating construction potentially kicking off as early as the beginning of May, it’s probably a good time to catch up.
It’s nice to see another brand enter the TOD zone rather than like, 20 more apartment buildings with the same Platform name. In my perfect world, all the different buildings would get different train-related names — I live at The Cowcatcher Townhomes, you’re kicking it over at Choo² Apartments, and so on. Thankfully, none of these people are ever going to hire me.
Of course, another stated benefit of TODs is their ability to place office space within walking distance to transit hubs like the MLK Jr. station. If you’re keeping track, there’s not much office space going on here, besides those nonprofit offices we mentioned earlier — there are a couple of live/work spaces in the Platform complex as well.
But you’d need more than that to give the area a real shot in the arm, and right now the TOD zone feels a tiny bit dead at the street level. Better cross your fingers for Cityline at MLK Station, a mixed-use development in the planning stages directly to the northeast of the Platform’s buildings facing East MLK Jr. Boulevard:
Though it’s little more than a website and sign at the corner of an empty lot for the moment, this potential project outlines 134,000 square feet of “creative offices,” 36,000 square feet of multifamily residential space, and 11,000 square feet of ground-floor retail. Those are much bigger numbers on the office and retail sides of the equation than we’ve seen from the recent developments at Chestnut Plaza, so the building would be a welcome addition to the zone.
Speaking of welcome additions, the planned Upper Boggy Creek Trail will soon create a path for pedestrians and cyclists between the MLK Jr. MetroRail station and East 12th Street, also providing access to the trails and parkland at the Boggy Creek Greenbelt. Sounds pretty transit-oriented to me!