Since 2008, the City of Austin has owned the approximately 13.7-acre empty former Home Depot store on East St. Johns Avenue near the interchange of Interstate 35 and Highway 183 in the St. John neighborhood. At the time, the city hoped to use the site for a courthouse or police station, but this never materialized — and more than a decade later that big dead box of a store remains unused except as a site for drive-thru COVID-19 tests administered in the store’s incredibly huge parking lot.
To be fair, the typically long process of civic land development has chugged along regarding this site over the course of several years, with community engagement efforts, planning reports from consultants, and finally the issuing of an RFP by the city last year — presumably we will learn more about what’s in store for this land in the next few months, with all signs currently pointing to a mixed-use development with a possible affordable housing component.
The fact that other plans are supposedly incoming makes the recent debut of a vision for a supportive homeless housing facility at the Home Depot site by local architecture firm Forsite Studio perhaps a bit awkwardly timed — but even if the land is potentially spoken for, there’s some interesting ideas in the proposal video below:
As our plugged-in readers might already know, the modification of shipping containers for use as buildings is basically a meme in the architecture and design world at this point — while they have been used for this sort of supportive housing elsewhere before, criticism of such concepts most often points out that these containers are actually surprisingly expensive, retrofitting them for human habitation isn’t as simple as it looks, and the real obstacle for building affordable housing is the cost of the land rather than the construction itself.
These are valid concerns, but Forsite’s concept neatly sidesteps such issues by placing the modified containers inside the existing city-owned Home Depot structure, which means the entire space is climate controlled and the containers won’t require the extensive installation of utilities that normally raises the cost of container projects — just light modifications like cutting windows to make them habitable as private personal spaces. If the estimated cost of $12,000 per unit is correct, it’s something to consider as we confront the very modern challenge of adapting empty big-box stores.
Even if the City of Austin has other plans in mind for the St. Johns site, the Forsite concept reminds us of a more general frustration — the city owns thousands of acres between tracts scattered all around Austin, and much of it remains undeveloped. While not all of these properties are as easily adapted as the Home Depot, there is massive unexplored potential for the city to utilize some of this existing land to address the overwhelming current need for permanent supportive housing facilities.
With the recent announcement of 1,400 new micro-homes on the way from the nonprofit sector at the incredibly successful Community First! Village in far East Austin, it’s hard not to think the city could use some of its own valuable dirt to give Austin’s most vulnerable citizens a home — cottage, container, whatever.