South Austin managed to get through the 20th century without much fuss, so obsessed were the city fathers with their favorite children—all the neighborhoods north of the Colorado River.
“South Austin was seen as sort of a stepchild,” said Jeff Jack, president of the Zilker Neighborhood Association and local architect.
Residents south of the river thrived in this sort of anonymity, managing to avoid the high cost of living that came with the constant churn of development. But the neighborhoods nearest the river were too close to downtown to be ignored forever, and those carefree days are fast disappearing.
Longtime residents of the Zilker neighborhood identify with the narrow winding streets, where homes could be built above a flood plain that was higher than today because there was no dam to control the Colorado.
“Big trees, streets with no sidewalks, generally, the street is the walkway,” said David Piper, a painter, novelist, and the Zilker Neighborhood Association’s first vice president.
Parents and their children walk in the street, along with pet owners out for morning exercise. It’s quiet here most of the time. But this is changing fast as development approaches from two directions.
The Zilker neighborhood contained within the 78704 zip code is generally bounded by South Lamar Boulevard to the east, Lady Bird Lake to the north, and Barton Skyway to the south. Its western boundary lies along Rabb and Robert E. Lee Roads.
A series of high-density mixed-use developments have crept down South Lamar for the better part of a decade, mostly one-bedroom rental units paired with ground-floor retail that cater to singles and childless couples. Within the residential area, other developers are taking advantage of single-family housing demand to buy up lots with homes that were mostly built between the 1930s and 1970s, only to tear them down and build larger homes valued upwards of $1 million.
In the 1980s, when I moved into my place, it was a novelty to see a REALTOR sign for a company that sold expensive homes. That has long since changed.
— Jeff Jack
It is common to see property valuations for a lot exceed $400,000, Piper said.
“There are essentially no small houses being built in this neighborhood. They’re all built to the very maximum of the building code,” he added.
Jack lives in a duplex. Next door, a developer recently bought a house at a cost of $800,000, tore it down and replaced it with six units.
“The first one sold for $1.3 million,” Jack said.
Jack and Piper cited a recent investigative report by Community Impact that showed the South Austin 78704 zip code, which includes Zilker, experienced more demolitions in the past seven years than any other in central Austin. The report also found that demolitions in central Austin’s 11 zip codes totaled 1,773 from 2010 to 2017, almost matching the 1,900 that took place in the previous thirty years.
With their neighborhood and way of life being squeezed both from within and across the South Lamar Boulevard commercial corridor, property taxes rise inexorably and residents feel the constant pressure to sell and move away.
Jack, a former city planning commissioner and Board of Adjustment member, has been at the vanguard of resistance to development that he and his constituents believe could hasten the demise of the South Austin they’ve known and loved. Their concern appears to lean more against developers that demolish homes only to replace them with high-dollar manors, but the higher-density juggernaut coming down South Lamar hardly goes unnoticed.
South Lamar originally developed as a corridor for small businesses that catered to residents and travelers coming from Fredericksburg and Johnson City. The eclectic mix of shops thrived through the decades, but Jack recalls that in the 1980s, the city “willy-nilly” overlaid vertical mixed-use zoning that permitted one-story commercial buildings to be replaced with structures up to 60 feet high.
We call it time bomb zoning because we never know when it’s going to explode.
— Jeff Jack
In theory, VMU zoning was supposed to create opportunities for more affordable housing by allowing more multifamily development. Multi-singles is more like it. With the high density came parking garages with capacity sufficient for residents, and the cluster of new retail and restaurants packed into modern street-level shop spaces.
“All of these [high-density developments] were on lots large enough to accommodate that kind of development,” Jack said as he sat by the window in the Patika coffee shop and pointed across the street to another small one-story retail building.
“A little lot like that one across the street has so little frontage and depth that you can’t do much with them,” he said.
Jack and Piper feel that up to the present, they have not arbitrarily opposed high-density development.
By and large, we’ve been supportive of the stuff that goes on South Lamar … We work with a lot of these developers to try to make their projects a little more friendly to pedestrians.
— David Piper
Like longtime residents from all over Austin, the Zilker Neighborhood Association prefers the opportunity to have a say in the zoning and variance entitlements developers request, and they often complain over how difficult it is to be involved early in the process.
“Developers hire fixers—attorneys, lobbyists, consultants, engineers—to work with city staff. They talk to each department and negotiate how that department is going to react to their project. Then they submit for a building permit, but by then they’ve got all these staff heads nodding yes. So, it’s very difficult for us to know what’s going on,” Jack said. “We’ve lobbied for years that the moment a developer talks to staff about a potential project that the neighborhoods be notified. That’s never occurred.”
This can lead to unintentional and unnecessary problems. For instance: There is currently an application from Frontier Realty (related to Sackman Enterprises) for a mixed-use office/retail building to be constructed at 2010 S. Lamar Boulevard, site of the former La Feria Restaurant.
Frontier wants to tear down the restaurant building. But in their talks with the city, the developer proposed having direct access to and from South Lamar Boulevard.
“The city staff says, ‘No, that’s in conflict with the corridor plan. Put it on Hether Street. But Hether has a limitation on the number of trips [per day], so this forces the developer to go to the Board of Adjustment to get a variance.”
Had the neighborhood association been involved in talks from the start, Jack argues such conflicts would have been identified and avoided. Though it hasn’t yet raised any major concerns, the Zilker officers are also keeping an eye on a mixed-use project planned by Drenner Group for an as yet unidentified developer at 1311 S. Lamar Boulevard — currently occupied by the Genie Car Wash — that will have about 226 residential units and ground-floor retail.
Leah Bojo, senior land use and policy manager at Drenner, is seeking a zoning change for a small recessed lot that is adjacent to two other lots in the 1300 block. In her correspondence to the City Planning and Zoning Department, Bojo said the six-tenths acre tract in question has a Floor to Area Ratio of three-tenths to one.
The adjacent lots planned to be combined with that tract already have a 1.4 to one FAR ratio and Drenner wants to up-zone the back lot to the same ratio.
“We talked to private equity lenders who fund multifamily projects. That zoning change increases the value for that land by $1.5 million to $2 million,” Jack said.
Looking to the future, Jack and Piper see formidable challenges for middle-class residents in the neighborhood. City Hall recently tinkered with the Accessory Dwelling Unit ordinance—a housing stock formula that allows a second smaller dwelling on a single family lot. The size lot where such a unit could be built was reduced to 5,750 square feet, and the argument for it was this would create more affordable housing.
“But that changed the dynamic a great deal. There’s a difference between cost development and price in the market. If demand is still high, the market will set the price. It just means the developer will make a larger profit,” Jack said.
He argues that until City Hall comes up with incentives that make development affordable for buyers, families will continue to be under pressure to sell out and move away. On Lamar Boulevard, Jack said the developers have picked most of the low-hanging fruit, meaning future development will become more challenging for developers and put more pressure on residents.
“We’ve pretty much use up our big lots. We have only one or two left large enough to do another Post South Lamar or something like that,”
Jack has his eye on a slew of small commercial buildings in the vicinity of Uchi, the sushi restaurant in the 800 block. He believes a developer will eventually buy those lots to assemble a tract large enough for another mixed-use high-density project — and that will become the new trend.
We don’t really have a problem with them assembling commercial lots, but we’re very much opposed to them trying to take residential lots and up-zoning them to commercial use.
— Jeff Jack
That would be the proverbial line in the sand for Zilker residents. South Austinites have endured a decade of encroachment from what amounts to an unending expansion of the de facto boundaries of downtown. There have been other broader skirmishes, such as the Save Town Lake movement to stop the construction of towers on the south banks. The Zilker Neighborhood Association and its sister associations say they know they’re the underdog in this fight, but they’re organized, vigilant and ready to engage.
“We’re very much about keeping Downtown ‘downtown,’” Jack said.