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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A $500 million mixed-use development spanning 1,400 acres is coming to Southeast Austin, near Tesla’s headquarters at Giga Texas.
Plans for the development by Houston-based real estate firm Hines include 2,500 houses along with multi-family and townhomes, and commercial land. Hines is partnering with Trez Capital, Sumitomo Forestry and Texas-based Caravel Ventures.
The development, which is known as Mirador, will be located off the 130 Toll and Highway 71, which the developers say provides easy access to the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 racetrack and other Austin attractions like restaurants, parks and live music venues.
Hines also boasts amenities like a 60-acre lake, over 600 acres of greenbelt, community parks, trails and a swimming pool.
“As Austin continues to grow into the tech epicenter of Texas, coupled with a supply-constrained market, the demand for new housing is at its highest,” Dustin Davidson, managing director at Hines, said. “Mirador will be critical in providing more options for Austin’s growing population and we are excited to work alongside our partners given they each provide a unique and valued perspective in single-family development.”
The local housing market has been hot in recent years, with home sales accelerating earlier in the pandemic. In July 2021, the Austin metro area hit its pricing peak at $478,000. As Austonia previously reported, the area has been expected to see the Tesla effect, with the new workforce driving up demand for housing and other services.
The single-family houses are expected to be developed over the course of six years, in phases. Construction on the homes is expected to start this year and home sales will begin in 2023.
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Editor's note: This story summarizes Sports Illustrated's story detailing Michael Center's involvement in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, based on interviews with SI's Jon Wertheim. Additionally, Austonia received comments from Michael Center, included in this story.
Confined to his couch, former Longhorns tennis coach Michael Center praised his players via FaceTime after the program he built produced the Longhorns’ first national championship in 2019—a bittersweet moment as Center faced federal charges as part of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.
His name dragged through the mud, Center was fired, arrested by the FBI and sentenced to six months in a Central Texas federal prison after pleading guilty to two charges related to mail fraud. And over a year after his release, Center told Sports Illustrated he doubts he was the only one in burnt orange involved.
When the Varsity Blues scandal broke out to the public in 2019, the investigation was a perfect storm for nationwide attention: Hollywood glamour, blue blood conspiracy and faith in the tried-and-true American education system came to a head as 33 movie stars and other elites were found guilty of paying more than $25 million to pave their children’s way into eight colleges, including the University of Texas.
UT was one of eight schools caught in the college admissions scandal. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The figure behind Varsity Blues, “college consultant” Rick Singer, would plead guilty to four felony counts for faking SAT scores and bribing coaches at prominent universities for his elite clients—but not before throwing Center under the bus.
Singer's client, private equity executive Chris Schaepe, was looking for a way to bend UT's tight admissions policies for his son, who was seeking a position oddly as a manager on UT’s basketball team. Through a middleman, Singer contacted Center, who eventually agreed.
Schaepe's son hadn't played tennis since his freshman year of high school. It was a detail that Center says passed through plenty of hands before he was admitted, including "academic support staff, the compliance office, the sports supervisor and, ultimately, the athletic director," SI's Jon Wertheim writes.
No one in the entire athletic department, including seven "risk management and compliant services department" employees, was named, implicated or punished. After an internal investigation, Center was the only one named in the Varsity Blues "subterfuge" in a September 2019 UT news release signed by the university president.
He told Austonia he was never contacted by the university during the investigation, and when the NCAA interviewed him for its investigation, he says it cleared him of any violations.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Center said. “I literally couldn’t breathe. There’s no college coach in America—much less at a state school, much less a coach of a nonrevenue sport—who can admit an athlete without consulting other people in the athletic department. What they were asking people to believe, it’s just impossible.” SI said Center's assertion was backed by multiple UT coaches and administrators at other schools.But why would the Forty Acres be complicit?
Center said UT’s then newly named athletic director Steve Patterson made clear that Center suddenly was responsible for more than building a successful tennis program. He was to be a "fundraiser first and coach second" and he would need to find donors to fund a new tennis facility. Patterson admitted to SI that he wanted his coaches to find donors and said the department was "$15 million in the red" when he started in 2013, though he denies any knowledge of the false tennis recruitment.
Center said he knew he would be "considered a team player" if he let in the son of a Silicon Valley magnate. And sure enough, Schaepe immediately began pulling out his wallet, donating $100,000 to UT tennis and a six-figure check to the school's communication program.
"I never entered this as a way to profit. This was a fundraising mission where I made a terrible mistake at the end,"
Months after Schaepe's son was admitted, Center agreed to meet Singer at the Austin airport and found himself accepting a backpack filled with $60,000 in cash meant for him, personally. He said he immediately knew he had made a mistake. He told SI “I put the money in my basement and gave most of it away.”
“Why did I do it?” Center told Sports Illustrated. "I go to bed and wake up each day asking myself the same question. I had to convince myself that I somehow deserved the money."
Once in court, Center showed texts with UT's compliance official and mentioned Chris Plonsky, a department executive involved in "overseeing men’s tennis, compliance, academic support (which generates letters of intent) and the Longhorn Foundation," according to SI.
“I knew I had to answer for my guilt,” Center said. “But I was like, 'Man, schools are going to get hammered.'"'
INMATE 77806-112 but out on Sunday: Actor Felicity Huffman in prison uniform outside low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin to visit actor husband William H. Macy & their daughter. Huffman admitted to paying $15K to have fixer boost daughter’s SAT score. 📸: @TMZ pic.twitter.com/9jALmqnA0U
— Henry K. Lee (@henrykleeKTVU) October 21, 2019
But Center was the only Longhorn to go down for the crimes. “I was no rogue actor,” Center said. “And this wasn’t my word against their word. There were signatures that went along with it. That’s the system... There wasn’t one point in the process where I thought people wanted to learn the whole truth.”
Back at home in Austin, Center watched as actress Felicity Huffman served just eleven days for her part in the scandal. Some served up to five months; others simply paid a fine, and others, like Singer, await sentencing.
And because the prosecution chose to blame individual coaches, framing schools as victims in the case, universities like UT have received less than a slap on the wrist for their possible involvement.
“I was always taught that actions have consequences,” Center said. “What I’ve come to realize is that, yes, for some people actions absolutely do have consequences. Serious, heavy ones. For others, actions can have no consequences at all.”
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