The redevelopment of East Austin’s Rebekah Baines Johnson Center, a 1972 housing complex for low-income seniors built on a 17.8-acre tract southeast of downtown, is slowly gaining steam — and the project’s recently-revealed name, “The Hatchery,” evokes the curious history of this property even as it creates a new master-planned community for housing Austin’s future. After a groundbreaking ceremony held a little more than a year ago, progress at the site is really beginning to show.
A drone video of the RBJ Center site, currently in the early stages of its redevelopment as “The Hatchery,” shot by construction firm Chasco Constructors earlier this year.
Since this isn’t an ’80s movie, the development team at Southwest Strategies Group, Momark Development, and Diana McIver & Associates aren’t tearing down the affordable housing to build a golf course, or some other nefarious scheme — in fact, over several years of construction split between three phases, the project plans to rehabilitate the 245 senior living apartments in the existing tower at the property, while doubling the community’s affordable housing capacity with an estimated 279 additional senior units in an adjacent five-story building wrapped around the tower.
Once the site’s fully built out, those senior apartments will coexist with an expected 500 market-rate residential units, thousands of square feet of offices, retail space, and “Hatchery Park,” a public plaza located near the corner of Haskell and Waller Streets.
At full build-out the community will contain 1,000 residential units split between the market-rate and affordable senior living, and 50,000 square feet of office and neighborhood-scale retail services. The community has been planned cohesively, with all buildings, streets, landscaping, and walkways working together, creating a healthy flow and scale between residents, the surrounding neighborhood, retailers, pedestrians and vehicular traffic.
— Hatchery Project Summary, SSG Momark Collaborative
The name of the park and the Hatchery project itself celebrates the RBJ property’s slightly odd history as the former site of a federal fish hatchery from the 1940s to the late 1960s, which raised game fish like bass and channel catfish in 19 ponds irrigated by pumps drawing from the nearby Colorado River. Once grown, the fish were used to stock lakes and ponds around the state for the enjoyment of the angling population.
The Hatchery Park section of the development will incorporate the few remaining elements of the old hatchery’s pumping infrastructure, including the round pond visible both in the image above and the map below, which still exists near the corner of Haskell and Waller Streets at the northwestern corner of the RBJ tract:
As part of the project, Navasota Street will extend through the center of the property, with a new street connecting Navasota and Comal Streets named for late UT System executive Arthur “Art” Dilly. These improvements and the rest of the plan’s general layout are all visible on the map below, included in recent investment documents from the developers that also conveniently revealed the new Hatchery brand identity:
The master plan for rehabilitation and expansion at this site has been in the making since 2010, enabled by the RBJ Center’s founding nonprofit organization the Austin Geriatric Center paying off its mortgage to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2013. It’s been a long wait since then, but rest assured that a serious laundry list of local companies have worked with the nonprofit and aforementioned three developers on the Hatchery project’s conception over the years — including architecture outfits Davies Collaborative, Design Workshop, Blu Fish Collaborative, Nelsen Partners, and Sixthriver Architects; along with additional work from civil engineers Big Red Dog and consulting firm Capital Project Management.
Along with the existing RBJ Center tower’s rehabilitation and construction of new senior housing, the Hatchery’s three phases of development will proceed as follows — we’ve included concept images from each phase and relevant information directly from the project’s promotional documents when we can:
Phase I: Mixed-use multifamily, with 244 market-rate rental units and 4,500 square feet of ground-floor retail space
Centered around two Heritage Oak trees, the ground-floor retail will spill out into the plaza area, providing a public gathering place for all residents. The vision for the 4,500 square feet of retail is to target a small coffee shop, light eateries, and one other neighborhood-scale service that would be an amenity to residents on-site and in the adjoining neighborhood.
— Hatchery Phase I Project Summary
Phase II: 50,000 square feet of mixed-use office and retail space, plus 30 “micro-residential units” facing Haskell Street
The site plan anticipates approximately 50,000 square feet of commercial space over two buildings. Each building will have ground-floor parking with commercial use lining the street, and a second floor of office space. The northern building in the Mixed-Use Tract contemplates 30 micro-residential units, which will provide a two-story residential façade along Haskell Street, mirroring existing neighborhood character.
— Hatchery Phase II Project Summary
Phase III: Up to 220 condo units, but could change to rental apartments depending on market conditions
Images of the two residential buildings expected to be built as part of the Hatchery project’s third phase aren’t available yet, but we know they will surround the Hatchery Park section of the development located at the RBJ Center site’s northwest corner, with the old federal hatchery’s last remaining pond as the park’s centerpiece:
The site plan anticipates 220 for-sale units across two buildings which both contain sufficient parking. Subject to market conditions, the buildings could revert to for-rent residential. This project will surround Hatchery Park, an open green space that will be renovated as part of this project’s capitalization and will provide a unique outdoor gathering amenity for all residents and the public.
— Hatchery Phase III Project Summary
Though we don’t know the timeline for the completion of these phases, previous reports indicate the new senior housing component and existing tower’s renovation are expected by 2022. No matter when it’s done, it’s great to see some progress at the RBJ Center property — especially on a project that, in true “Weird Austin” fashion, might be the first real estate development in history named for a fish hatchery.