You wouldn’t necessarily peg the 2.84-acre plot on the east side of Interstate 35 between East 11th and 12th Streets as a fierce battleground for the soul of Austin. That’s not to say that the swooping pink roofline of the former Lucky Lady Bingo Hall isn’t charming, but at the end of the day it’s an unassuming strip mall dominated mostly by its shockingly large parking lot. Still, nearly every scrap of land in the downtown and downtown-adjacent territories of our city has a story, and this one happens to go way back.
But I’m getting ahead of myself — the reason we’re here now is the building seen in the illustrations below, which come from pre-development utility filings with the city. It’s known as the Huston, presumably after Samuel Huston, the benefactor and namesake of a Methodist college for African-Americans in East Austin that occupied part of the current site near East 12th Street before moving and merging with Tillotson College to create the historically black Huston-Tillotson University.
Available plans for the Huston show a 14-story residential building bringing 366 apartment units to market — 45 studios, 194 one-bedrooms, and 142 two-bedrooms — along with a couple levels of underground parking. No retail space is planned for the project.
The building is being developed in partnership between Lennar Multifamily Communities and JH West 12th Street Partners — an entity associated with Haythem Dawlett, principal of development firm Legend Communities and a very interesting name to do a Google search on.
With the closure of the CVS Pharmacy at the site a few months ago, along with recent utility filings indicating that the project is at a 90 percent design stage, there’s a solid chance ground could break on the building fairly soon. Still, there’s also probably a good reason you haven’t seen anything about it in the news yet — development at the site by Dawlett has been a sore subject for the primarily single-family neighborhoods behind it to the east for going on three years or so at this point, and the Huston is only the latest iteration of a project that’s been through more than its fair share of twists and turns.
Known subsequently as Austin City Centre, Huston Heights, and finally One Two East, the project was originally designed as a mixed-use complex with two apartment towers, one designated as senior housing, along with ground-floor retail space — potentially in the form of a full-service grocery store.
Dawlett’s original plans called for two apartment towers, expected to be 15 stories tall, which would have had 472 luxury apartments, expected to be priced between $1,900 and $3,500 a month. He said that he would dedicate one of the two towers to housing retirees and that 17 of the apartments — about 4 percent — would be priced more moderately. He also wanted to build a grocery store at the site.
“Anyone can go downtown and build a high-rise apartment, office or condo tower,” Dawlett said in a December interview. “Here, I’m trying to create a lifestyle for people who are older,” he added, promising amenities such as an indoor pool, physical therapy rooms, a dining hall and yoga classes.
To build this version of the project, Dawlett sought zoning changes to the property that would allow for an 185-foot building with a higher floor-to-area ratio than the current code, which would limit the building to 150 feet. Immediate opposition to the plan emerged among the East Austin neighborhoods adjacent to the site, led by the Robertson Hill Neighborhood Association, Central East Austin’s neighborhood plan contact team, and Council Member Ora Houston.
The neighborhood’s issues with the development constituted many of the usual suspects — increased traffic, shadows cast over historic homes, and so on — but Houston’s concerns about the building had a different tone, reflecting East Austin’s general anxiety towards density as simply another version of the racially-tinged policies that pushed the city’s minority populations eastward in the first place:
[Houston] said she fears the towers will create a divide like I-35 did, separating West Austin from East Austin’s mostly minority population.
“When this project first came to my attention, I explained that I had lived through the horizontal separation of Austin, when I-35 did that to our city,” Houston said. “I saw this height (from the proposed towers) as a vertical representation of a barrier, although with the gentrification we’ve got more Anglos in that immediate area than we do people of color. If you place those two structures there, it will block out any sense of the community to the east. It’s like hitting a brick wall.”
The One Two East controversy quickly metastasized in the form of yard signs, dueling websites, and a series of contentious discussions between developer and neighborhood. By 2016, after more than a year of opposition, Dawlett dropped the zoning change request for the site, and everything went quiet until the new plan for the Huston project emerged late last year.
It seems a little too glib to immediately discount the concerns of the neighborhood as yet another example of entitled homeowner NIMBYism. After all, this isn’t Bouldin or Zilker — we’re talking about historically underserved neighborhoods, the minority-heavy demographics of which were engineered by legitimately discriminatory city policy. As Austin grapples (or, perhaps more accurately, fails to grapple) with an ever-worsening housing affordability crisis, it’s clear how real the fears of displacement are for people living on the east side, and ignoring those fears won’t do us any favors as advocates for smart, dense, affordable growth.
— KUT Austin (@KUT) May 12, 2017
Still, three years later armed with the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard to see this iteration of the project as anything but a missed opportunity for a building with more benefits for its surroundings than a market-rate, residential-only project could ever hope to bring. That missed opportunity snaps more into focus once you realize almost the entire East 12th Street corridor behind the Huston site is now owned by a single firm with an unfortunate knack for alienating the neighborhood’s existing residents — and god only knows what they’re planning to build.