Here’s a couple of signs, just doing some sign stuff over at 56 East Avenue. As far as the map’s concerned, this 1.12-acre site is one block removed from the Rainey Street District’s hustle and bustle, but it’s functionally a lot closer, a building sitting in the shadow of condo towers against the eastern edge of a region that’s experienced more change in the last decade than most city streets see in a lifetime.
Since it’s not a bar, food truck, condo, or the glorious MACC, your brain could be forgiven for editing out 56 East Avenue, home of what’s allegedly known as the Nadine L. Jay building, from your memories of Rainey Street. Anyhow, what the hell’s a psychiatric crisis clinic doing a few steps away from hotels, residential tower construction sites, and some of the most nationally-acclaimed bars in the city?
The answer, as you might imagine, is no great mystery in context. What we now know as the Rainey Street District, notable for its Folk Victorian bungalow-style homes, was originally subdivided and developed by Jesse Driskill and Frank Rainey in the 1880s as a white, middle-class neighborhood.
But between 1880 and 1920, Austin’s population tripled, and its growing number of ethnic minorities settled with increasing concentration on the eastern side of town — the result of a process of segregation spurred by nakedly intentional practices of housing discrimination against black and Hispanic residents, carried out on a widespread scale even before the local government wrote an East Austin “Negro District” into a 1928 city planning document.
While minority populations increased, downtown neighborhoods shrank in turn, as affluent white families relocated to nearby suburbs more insulated from the central city. By 1930, the Rainey Street area was inhabited primarily by lower-income families, many of them Hispanic.
The construction of I-35 in the early 1960s isolated the neighborhood from the shops and homes on the eastern side of the highway, which were previously accessible simply by crossing East Avenue — only accelerating the area’s decline. Urban renewal studies through the 1960s identified the neighborhood as a problem community, with a 1978 report indicating that more than half its residential properties were considered to be in poor structural condition.
Echoing notes of the 1928 city plan, which eventually led to weakened zoning restrictions for East Austin in an attempt to relocate heavy industry from the central city to its minority-populated eastern districts, Rainey Street and the surrounding region saw a number of unpleasant neighbors over the years. Between roughly 1950 and 1980, the area now home to the Villas on Town Lake condos — and an upcoming residential tower development — was the site of a poultry processing plant that slaughtered and plucked chickens by the truckload.
The neighborhood also had its share of massage parlors and other mildly shady dealings — the 92 East Avenue address of the establishment seen in the photo below is just south of the Homewood Suites development, for what it’s worth. Even as recently as 2009, after the 2004 rezoning that kicked off Rainey Street’s rapid transformation in the first place, a business called Mermaids operated along the I-35 frontage road feeding into East Avenue. From what I can tell, the apparent deal with Mermaids was about renting hot tubs — as in, you rented time in a hot tub by the hour. I don’t know anything more than that, but the whole thing sounds greasy.
The purpose of this extended history lesson is just to drive the point home that prior to Rainey Street’s rapid and recent gentrification, the emergency psychiatric center at 56 East Avenue wouldn’t be too out of place. Despite the obvious benefit of such a facility to the community, affluent neighborhoods have a well-documented history of opposition to these clinics over concerns that they will bring “undesirables” and increased crime rates to the region — meaning lower-income communities like the Rainey Street area in its former life are often the easiest places to operate.
You might say this neighborhood received the short end of the stick for decades, and the clinic is one of the last remaining reminders of that fact — one that many of us would probably prefer to forget, since it points towards a darker side of the city than Rainey Street’s current scrubbed-up appearance might otherwise imply.
Anyway, the story of the 56 East Avenue address has a few twists and turns of its own. From roughly 1950 to 1970, the site was home to the Parkview Nursing Home, also known as the Parkview Convalescent Home in some appearances — pretty old-school name, ain’t it? Makes me think of shock therapy and lobotomies.
The address shows up in earlier decades listed as the residence of a couple of different people — go figure, it often pops up when they’re arrested for various crimes and show up in the Austin American-Statesman’s police blotter. This seems to suggest that a single-family home or apartment property existed on the site in some fashion prior to 1950, but it’s not entirely clear, and I’m unable to find any historical photos despite my best efforts.
Another mystery is the fact that the address was briefly occupied starting in 1970 by an after-hours club known as Maggie’s Farm — as in the one you ain’t gonna work on no more, it seems.
Anyway, by 1981 the property was the site of a halfway house, and in 1994 a city permit shows the building was functioning in its current capacity as a psychiatric crisis center. And that brings us, at very long last, back to the reason I’m writing this unhinged screed in the first place — the sign!
This baby’s only been up in front of the building for a week, tops, but it was obviously only a matter of time before this site got the spotlight. In fact, World Class Capital Group actually purchased the property back in 2015, with extremely open-ended plans for its eventual development, and that wasn’t even the first time it hit the block.
It’s fairly likely the firm is just testing the waters with these signs to gauge interest, and it looks like they’re even hedging their bets — in the photo back at the top of this post, that second sign actually describes a renovation of the existing clinic building into office space rather than a fully new development. It’s not a super exciting building, so I’m not as confident about that option.
Hey, here’s another twist — it turns out there’s a rendering for a building called “One River” in the portfolio of Dallas-based firm Merriman Anderson Architects that appears to match the location and design of the tower seen on the new sign:
Based on its filename, this image dates all the way back to 2013, which reinforces my suspicion that these renderings are entirely, completely, utterly speculative. Still, I just can’t help myself — here are two additional 2013 renderings of the building I’ve dug out of the architect’s portfolio:
Let me reiterate that we shouldn’t draw any serious conclusions from these five-year-old illustrations intended probably only for marketing purposes, but we can certainly make a few observations just for fun. For one thing, from all these images it’s pretty clear this hypothetical building is a mixed-use office tower with retail space on the ground floor, which might give us a clue to the site’s eventual future — after all, if the owner wanted to court a residential developer, they probably wouldn’t use a promotional rendering that was so obviously an office tower.
The site’s zoned CBD, which would typically allow for a much taller building and a 25:1 FAR, but this location is also in the Rainey Street section of the city’s Waterfront Overlay District, which introduces some additional density restrictions.
What else? We know there’s a possibility for up to 700,000 square feet of space in this hypothetical building, because an intense analysis of these photos reveals it says that on the sign. Nate Paul, principal at World Class Capital Group, actually gave a square footage estimate of 400,000 back in 2015 when his company acquired the site, but maybe something’s changed since then.
For the record, I reached out to folks at WCCG and CBRE, including the guys named on these signs, and after 24 hours I’m guessing they don’t find it in their best interest to reply with any additional info. And that’s a shame, because I love a good chat.
Either way, Paul couldn’t have picked a better property to sit on as the surrounding area’s development chugs along — just beyond the clinic building is an office complex at 48 East Avenue, which will eventually face the wrecking ball to make room for a 33-story residential tower. Still further south, there’s the Rhode Partners-designed apartment tower planned on a tiny scrap of land south of the Town Lake Holiday Inn. That’s not even mentioning every other forthcoming development within the self-contained universe of Rainey Street.
Just one more thing. Have you taken the time to count the floors dedicated to parking on this hypothetical rendering? Man, that’s an insane amount of parking. It actually looks like a slightly less bold version of the 405 Colorado tower — which means, to me, that it’s also slightly less obnoxious. Fight me.