With a clean modern design and incredible panoramic views of the downtown skyline from a hillside at the edge of the coveted Zilker neighborhood, the 110-unit apartment building now nearing the end of construction at 1508 South Lamar Boulevard looks like it’s almost ready to hit South Austin’s hungry luxury market — but Zilker Studios, the latest project from local nonprofit Foundation Communities, has a higher calling. Each of its studio residences averaging 431 square feet in size will be rented at deeply affordable rates to single adults earning no more than 50 percent of the Austin metro’s Median Family Income, many of them transitioning directly from homelessness.
We’re just months away from opening Zilker Studios, an affordable community for single adults on South Lamar. Recently, one of the architects, Jon Hagar of @FORGExCRAFT, toured the building with real estate journalist James Rambin, and they invited us to join them. pic.twitter.com/gP63PZlgua
— Foundation Communities (@foundcom) September 29, 2022
Jon Hagar, principal at the project’s designers Forge Craft Architecture + Design, asks us on a recent tour of the Zilker Studios construction site to imagine the impact of the seven-story building on the lives of Austinites who might have previously struggled with substandard or unsafe housing situations — and will now enjoy million-dollar views from comfortable, private residences when the building opens next year:
Alongside Foundation Communities and Forge Craft, the development team includes engineering firms APTUS, DCI, and Civilitude; with general contracting services by Bartlett Cocke. The project, with construction costs of approximately $17 million or $192 per square foot, is a real achievement in an era of rising materials and labor costs nationwide — but even with tight margins, the community’s design is attractive and sensitive to the needs of its occupants. Two heritage live oaks are preserved as part of the structure’s layout, with the larger tree serving as the centerpiece of the front courtyard overlooking South Lamar Boulevard. Like all Foundation Communities projects, the property will include on-site supportive services, along with amenities like a fitness center, game room, and community kitchen.
You’d better spend some time playing around with this detailed 3D model of the Zilker Studios project — we don’t usually get access to stuff like this.
Open sightlines through the building’s communal areas and an open-air interior courtyard rising through the center of the structure provide occupants with a good view of the entire building from multiple vantage points, which Hagar says is helpful for individuals transitioning out of homelessness who may have anxieties associated with feeling unwelcome in public — the building’s layout allows residents to see what’s happening on the floors below before they choose to leave their units and join the communal environment downstairs. These sorts of considerations, he says, are the result of Foundation Communities’ more than 30 years of experience providing affordable homes for thousands of Austinites and learning what works best.
Made possible by 9 percent low income housing tax credits and built on a half-acre property acquired with community benefits funding from the “Taco PUD” developers of the Loren at Lady Bird Lake hotel and condo project further up South Lamar Boulevard, Zilker Studios sounds like a best-case scenario for affordable housing development in Austin’s rapidly unattainable real estate market — but until recently, the project would have been virtually impossible. According to Hagar, the community could never have been built without the Affordability Unlocked development bonus program approved by the City of Austin in 2019, which waives various compatibility and parking mandates of the city’s development code for deeply affordable housing.
Although the site is not close enough to single-family homes to face any compatibility setbacks, the base zoning of the property would typically limit the height of a structure here to 60 feet, meaning the 75-foot building would have lost two stories. Along with the slightly larger parking minimums imposed here prior to the waivers of Affordability Unlocked, an affordable project built at this site without the bonus program would be reduced by 44 units — and Hagar says a community with only 66 residences would have made the concept both financially infeasible due to construction costs and significantly less competitive for tax credits, meaning Foundation Communities might not have pursued it in the first place.
To us, this project represents a policy success story, but one that’s locally all too rare — just think, if the City of Austin only recently released fully affordable projects from the code restrictions now waived by Affordability Unlocked, what hope is there for market-rate housing developments ever being built at price points attainable to middle-class earners? It’s certainly something to think about as the battle rages on.