A seven-story, 110-unit studio apartment development by local affordable housing developer Foundation Communities will fit just fine on a half-acre tract at 1508 South Lamar Boulevard — not a bad reminder that small spaces can hold a lot of homes.
An aerial view of the office and parking lot that will soon become the Zilker Studios project.
Known as Zilker Studios, the community’s 435-square-foot affordable studio residences will be rented to eligible housing-vulnerable Austinites earning less than 50 percent of the region’s Median Family Income (MFI), which for a single individual in 2020 is $34,200 per year. 30 percent of units in the building will be reserved for those earning less than 40 percent of the MFI ($27,350), and a further 20 percent of units are designated for incomes below 30 percent MFI ($20,550).
[Zilker Studios] will serve individuals that have very low and extremely low incomes and are homeless, on the verge of homelessness, and in need of specialized and specific non‐medical services in order to maintain independent living. Every resident will have access to support services designed to meet the unique needs of the family or individual, such as increasing income, improving employment options, reducing debt, improving credit, building healthy relationships, better understanding one’s relationship with money, lessening reliance on welfare benefits, and securing a level of success designed for long‐term sustainability. Two full time case managers will be available on site. Though the level of support is expected to vary across target income groups, every resident will have access to services.
— Foundation Communities Project Description
The 1508 tract, squeezed between Planet K and the Post South Lamar apartment community, is currently home to a nondescript office building, with most of its square footage occupied by a surface parking lot. Foundation Communities bought the site last year with $2.5 million in community benefits funding provided by MLB pitcher-turned-developer Huston Street — who previously had the property under contract — during the approval process for the “Taco PUD” bringing us the Loren at Lady Bird Lake hotel and condo project roughly one mile north at 211 South Lamar Boulevard.
Designed by local firm Forge Craft Architecture, which previously brought us the developer’s similar nearby Bluebonnet and Capital Studios projects, Zilker Studios looks like more of the same — and in this case, that’s a good thing. It’s colorful, compact, and gives low-income Austinites a dignified, well-designed, and wonderfully-located place to call their own, with lots of services located on-site:
[Zilker Studios] is the new construction of 110 units of Supportive Housing that will build on Foundation Communities’ successful housing‐plus‐services model, proven so effective for single adults with high needs, low incomes, and housing instability.
[The project] is designed as a 7‐story building with parking on the first floor, common area on the second floor, and units on floors 3 – 7. The first level will have a secured entry, lobby, and 24‐hour front desk staff. The 2nd level will have a tv room, fitness room, game room, gathering area, laundry, a covered patio, property management and service coordinator offices, and maintenance rooms. The upper level residential floors will each have 3 common area balconies for residents to enjoy.
[Zilker Studios] is an exciting opportunity to provide affordable housing in the rapidly developing South Lamar transit corridor. Residents will have excellent access to high frequency transit and a quick bus ride to downtown Austin, Zilker Park, retail, and jobs along the South Lamar corridor.
— Foundation Communities Project Description
Local design and engineering firms Asakura Robinson and Civilitude Engineers are also involved with the project, but we’re not entirely sure of a groundbreaking date at the moment — documents associated with the project do indicate construction should begin sometime in 2021, and the existing buildings here have to come down first.
Though members of the Zilker Neighborhood Association had some objections to the source of funding for Zilker Studios, the association ultimately voted in support of the project — but once the future of the site was certain, the association quickly took issue with a rezoning case that would allow its neighboring tract, longtime smoke shop Planet K, to open a bar on its grounds. Austin City Council eventually approved the rezoning earlier this month, but not before the Zilker Neighborhood Association came out swinging against it, the group’s letter of opposition citing none other than the future affordable housing development next door as its number one reason:
Items two and three on the above list are at least mildly plausible concerns — that Planet K driveway is pretty gnarly, and bars can get loud, although the applicant already informed the city that they don’t intend to host live music at night. Item four is just silly, since many of the bars mentioned as “saturating” South Lamar Boulevard (and earning money from selling alcohol, which the neighborhood seems to position as a bad thing) are actually restaurants, and many are located up to a mile away from the Planet K site. But it’s item one that really gets our goat — this glib, solitary sentence, proclaiming with the smug tone of fact that it’s “inappropriate” for a business next door to an affordable housing community to sell alcohol.
We believe the low-income people eligible for housing at this community will be no less equipped than other residents of the neighborhood to determine the paths of their own lives, and should be free to do so without this insufferable condescension from a small group of homeowners regarding precisely how far they should be allowed to live from a bar before their virtues might be overwhelmed by the sheer proximity of alcohol — it’s a philosophical approach treating the condition of poverty as a material reflection of some inner moral failing, which you might recognize from the paternalistic Victorian-era social reform movements that eventually brought us the genius idea of Prohibition, not to mention proposals by alleged progressives to prevent, say, food stamp recipients from buying junk food.
The association’s argument can’t even follow its own internal logic, considering the existence of Barlata, a tapas bar located — whoops — on the ground floor of the Post South Lamar apartments, literally next door to the site. This means if the Zilker Neighborhood Association’s members were interested in accuracy, that pithy first item on their letter of opposition would read “A second cocktail Lounge next door to a Foundation Communities project is inappropriate.” Doesn’t have the same ring to it — but that’s the sort of rhetorical challenge you’ll encounter when you’re trying to use hypothetical low-income people as a shield against something you don’t like.
That’s not even touching the notion that the character of “iconic place” Planet K would somehow be diluted by the addition of a bar — we love Planet K, but are we all going to pretend it’s not a store for items and accessories related to smoking cannabis just because the employees have to tell you that shiny new bong is only suitable for tobacco use? Rather than penciling out the ridiculous moral calculus of whether drug paraphernalia or a few nice cocktails does more harm to the lives of struggling Austinites, we’re just glad to see both projects here moving forward. Imagine that — an affordable home near downtown Austin with a smoke shop/bar combo next door? It sounds almost…weird.