Fourteen years after the city of Austin purchased the former Home Depot site at I-35 and St. John's Avenue in 2007, City Council voted unanimously on Thursday to begin negotiations to redevelop it, with construction slated to start as soon as next year.
Real estate developer Greystar and the Housing Authority of the City of Austin have proposed a plan for the 19-acre site that includes:
- A 3-acre public park with a splash pad, playground and community garden
- 280 affordable rental units
- 15,000 square feet of community retail and support services space for tenants such as grocers, vocational training centers and child care
Greystar and HACA have also agreed to pay off more than $10 million in city debt. Because the city purchased the property using 2006 bonds with the intention of building a police station or courthouse, this debt needs to be paid off before the site can be used for a different purpose that better aligns with the community's goals.
District 4 Council Member Greg Casar has been involved in this effort since before taking office in 2016. "It took way too long, but it's clear that the community pushing and wanting to keep people in the neighborhood … has finally gotten us to this point," he told Austonia.
The proposed redevelopment includes affordable housing, expanded park space and commercial space. (TBG and Brent Design)
'A step in the right direction'
During the negotiations process, council has instructed staff to secure affordable homes for purchase in addition to rental units and right-to-stay and right-to-return programs that serve people who have been displaced by gentrification.
Cherelle VanBrakle grew up in the St. John's neighborhood and works at the People's Community Clinic, which is less than a mile away from the site. "I obviously love Austin," she told council on Thursday. "In the same breath, I cannot afford to live in Austin."
VanBrakle purchased a home in Manor four years ago after her mortgage broker told her she couldn't afford anything in the 78752 ZIP code—or anywhere else in the city of Austin. But she remained involved in the years-long community engagement process that led to the current proposal. "This is a step in the right direction," she said, urging council to support the proposal.
Thelma Williams, a St. John's resident known as Grandma Wisdom, is hopeful that the redevelopment will bring more job opportunities and social services to a community that sorely needs it. "The social issues are my great concern, and I think many of the things that we can do with this development will help with some of those issues," she told council.
Thelma Williams, top left, and Cherelle VanBrakle, top right, were among the community members who spoke in support of the redevelopment proposal during the Thursday council meeting. (Council Member Gregorio Casar/Facebook)
Honoring the past
The former Home Depot (and current COVID testing) site is both a "symbol of blight and neglect," as resident Hakim McClellan said Thursday, and sacred ground with a rich history.
In the late 1890s, the St. John Regular Missionary Baptist District Association purchased 350 acres of land, spanning ACC Highland to Blessing Avenue, just West of Cameron Road. It served as a Freedman community, where formerly enslaved people could find work as sharecroppers, as well as home to an orphanage and school.
"In so many ways, while we had land, we were in an area where we didn't get a lot of participation from the larger community," Precinct 1 Commissioner Jeffrey Travillion said at a Friday press conference. "So what we see today is a sea change."
For many Black Austinites, the redevelopment serves as an important opportunity for the city to honor the history of the St. John's neighborhood, even as its demographics shift. Its population is now majority Latino, and its share of Black residents has shrunk from 13% in 2000 to 8.4% in 2017, according to U.S. census data.
"When the city of Austin ... moves forward with the redevelopment and rebuilding of this area, what the city is saying is that they are concerned about that segment of the community and that they're being intentional about lifting up … everybody who is in the St. John's area," Rev. Daryl Horton, a pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in East Austin and member of the St. John Regular Baptist District Association, told Austonia. "And this becomes a shining light of what makes Austin a wonderful city to live in."
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Five Austin companies joined Google's second Startups Black Founders Fund on Wednesday, earning $100,000 each as part of the $10 million initiative geared toward giving Black entrepreneurs access to funding for their startups.
The fund gave $100,000 to 50 founders nationwide, including Austin companies CustomerX.i, Journey Foods, Sandbox Commerce, The Mentor Method and Tadeblock.
The founders will receive the funding without giving up any ownership of their startups and will gain access to Google technical support including up to $120,000 in donated search Ads from Google.org and up to $100,000 in Google Cloud credits. The Austin companies will also join a select few—the fund is only two years old and last year rewarded 76 Black-led startups with up to $100,000 as well.
Google's Startup funds can be used to boost Black founders' companies into success—last year, founders raised up to $50 million in capital after recieving the funds, and 80% of the companies used their funds to create jobs.
Founders from last year's batch then paid it forward by nominating new companies and announcing the winners via Zoom.
Here's a look at those 5 founders in Austin:
Hakeem James- Customer X.I
Customer X.I founder Hakeem James wants to help small restaurants thrive.
Customer X.I founder Hakeem James wants to keep mom-and-pop shops alive. That's why he started his company to bridge "the gap between online and offline" and give restaurants and small businesses a centralized location to analyze their data against competitors.
"The question we ask internally: is it simple enough for my grandmother to use? For the record, my grandmother sometimes picks up the phone upside down," James told Microsoft.
The company's data can help businesses small and large better understand their customers—from their names to their drink choices—to build better relationships and customer loyalty.
But it hasn't been easy, especially as labor shortages and COVID safety policies affect restaurants during the pandemic. James said he heard about Google for Startups at Austin's entrepreneur hub, Capital Factory. He and the team will use the funding to create "freemium" plans as they seek to keep restaurants open.
"It has also allowed us to offer our products to restaurants that need it most on a freemium basis to keep their doors open and accelerate their growth when it has never been harder to do so," James said. "Being recognized and backed by Google is monumental for us; it is a signal to our partners of our growing success in the market and the expanded capacity we now have to serve our clients."
Riana Lynn- Journey Foods
Lynn said the startup fund will help level the playing field for Black entrepreneurs that may not get the funding they need.
"The Google for Startups Black Founders Fund is a strong step in increasing the significant discrepancies in funding to many groups of founders, especially founders of color," Lynn said. "The funds will be used to add more science and engineering talent to our team and improve our impact in supply chains."
The company takes a step further back in the food industry process by merging research and development for food companies. Through comprehensive food data, Journey Foods helps provide insights on ingredients, pricing, manufacturing, and supply chain information to companies across the food industry.
From suppliers to packaging companies, Journey Foods hopes to reduce waste and costs by streamlining the food creation process.
Sterling Smith- Sandbox Commerce
Sandbox Commerce CEO Sterling Smith wasn't given a heads-up when he earned a spot in the Black Startups Fund- instead, he thought he was in his final interview.
Smith, who founded the app company in 2018, expressed his gratitude for the funding.
"Everyone involved, I really appreciate you guys betting on Sandbox," Smith said. "I can tell my mom now, right?"
Sandbox Commerce looks to create simple apps for companies without any technical or coding skills needed. The company looks to especially help the underdogs, including small businesses or underrepresented companies, in bridging the gap between computer skills and entrepreneurs.
Janice Omadeke- The Mentor Method
The Mentor Method is a consulting firm that helps companies recruit and retain employees through mentorship. (The Mentor Method/Facebook)
The Mentor Method, founded by Janice Omadeke, has been featured by Forbes and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for its multi-step method of promoting employee retention and fulfillment. Omadeke has also won Capital Factory's $100k Female Founder competition award.
The company focuses on inclusivity, closing opportunity gaps and building talent through its mentorship method, which involves a matching algorithm that brings employees and mentors quickly together. The Mentor Method has been used by high-profile programs including the Department of Education and Glassdoor.
Omadeke said the startup will use its fund to create jobs, including a Product Coordinator, and boost an employee benefits package.
"The Google for Startups Black Founders Fund will help us scale faster and address the core needs of companies seeking to retain their employees," Omadeke said.
Mbiyimoh Ghogomu- Tradeblock
Now a company used by tens of thousands, Tradeblock had humble beginnings—it was once just an Instagram page for sneakerheads.
Founder Mbiyimoh Ghogomu teamed up with childhood friends Tony Malveaux and Darren Smith to transform the page throughout the pandemic and create a network for sneaker lovers to enjoy. With their motto "Kicks as Currency," sneakerheads can trade sneakers without ever touching their piggy bank.
For Ghogomu, the company and Black Starters fund are both about one thing-fostering community.
"Getting recognized by Google as part of the Black Founders Fund is a game-changer for us," Ghogomu said. "My co-founders and team have been working really hard to disrupt the sneaker x tech space and inspire community building. The funds, relationships and overall support that Tradeblock is gaining will take us to the next level."
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A member of the Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission (ICRC) contacted council members asking for their home addresses despite a charter provision prohibiting the ICRC from considering such information in its mapping process, according to emails obtained by the Bulldog through a public information request.
Four council members or their staffers replied providing home addresses: Alison Alter, Paige Ellis, Mackenzie Kelly, and Leslie Pool, according to the emails dated August 9th to Aug. 17.
Austinites will once again be able to take a nonstop flight to London as Austin-Bergstrom International Airport resumes transatlantic travel this fall.
Starting Oct. 13, British Airways will offer its direct flight from ABIA to London-Heathrow Airport three times a week on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. The airline, which has been operating in Austin since 2013, had halted service at the start of the pandemic over a year ago.
"We can't wait to welcome our customers back on board our Austin flights and we are honored to be playing our part in reuniting families and friends with their loved ones after such a long time apart," said Marie Hilditch, British Airways' head of North America sales.
Safety protocols the airline is taking include:
- social distancing measures
- wearing of facemasks
- providing hand sanitizer stations
- cleaning all surfaces after every flight
- fully recycling the air once every two to three minutes through HEPA filters, which remove microscopic bacteria and virus clusters with over 99.9% efficiency
The announcement comes as COVID-19 testing requirements to enter the UK are scheduled to stop on Oct. 4. for vaccinated Americans.
Additionally, a Monday White House announcement allows fully vaccinated international travelers to enter the U.S. starting in early November with proof of a negative COVID-19 test. The ban, which was implemented in 2020, restricted travelers from a number of European countries, Iran and China throughout the pandemic.