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$200 million project planned for RBJ Center site

A new future is about to unfold for a prime waterfront site that for 42 years has been home to the 16-story RBJ Center, an affordable housing development for senior citizens.

A team of local developers has been chosen to transform the nearly 18-acre site just east of downtown with 250 new units of affordable senior housing, 250 units of renovated senior housing in the existing building, about 340 units of market-rent apartments and condominiums for a mix of ages and incomes, and 25,000 square feet of commercial space.

The project is expected to have a price tag of $170 million to $200 million.

Nonprofit Austin Geriatric Center Inc., which owns and operates the RBJ Center, in January 2012 solicited bids from developers interested in carrying out its vision for the site, which is north of Festival Beach and has views of downtown and of Lady Bird Lake. The board told the American-Statesman that it has chosen Southwest Strategies Group, Momark Development and DMA Development Company LLC to take on the project.

Plans must go through a city approval process, but developers hope to break ground by late summer or early fall of 2015 on a new five-story building with affordable housing units for seniors. Once that building is completed, residents from the existing tower could move in while the older tower is renovated.

The entire project — including a five-story building envisioned for a mixed-use development on 9 acres of the site — is expected to cost $170 million to $200 million. Financing would come from a variety of sources, including affordable housing bond money and tax credits.

“This will provide significantly more high-quality housing for low-income seniors — and our team is excited to have the opportunity to create a vibrant community for all ages and incomes in a phenomenal setting that is uniquely Austin,” said Danny Roth, principal of Southwest Strategies Group, managing partner of the development team.

The idea for the center came from President Lyndon B. Johnson, who in the 1960s envisioned a place with a continuity of care “for the elderly sick and the elderly well.” It became a reality in 1972 when the apartment tower was built, named in honor of Johnson’s mother, Rebekah Baines Johnson.

Diana McIver, president of DMA Development Co., an Austin-based real estate development firm that specializes in affordable senior housing said the proposed plan “captures President Johnson’s vision for a residential community for lower- income seniors that encompasses health and wellness programs along with supportive services, something akin to ‘affordable assisted living.’ This hasn’t been done in Austin before, and to be able to do it in this beautiful setting — and as a continuation of a vision a Texan had 45 years ago — is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Current residents at the RBJ Center are 62 or older or have a disability. Most have incomes below 50 percent of the area’s median, or less than $21,000 a year.

For the new units, the age requirement will be revised to meet federal fair housing guidelines, which will expand eligibility to people 55 and older with incomes at 60 percent of area’s median, or $31,500 for a single person, McIver said.

McIver said it could cost an estimated $40 million to $50 million alone for the new 250-unit building and the renovation of the existing tower, plus additional parking.

The RBJ board is selling some of its land where the mixed-use project would be, and those proceeds would be used to help pay for some of the new affordable housing and the costs associated with water, wastewater and road improvements on the site, said Paul Saldaña, vice chairman of the Austin Geriatric Center’s board.

Terry Mitchell, president of Momark Development, said the project as envisioned would be “a destination spot for the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood that old and new residents will enjoy.”

Chris Yanez, principal planner with the Austin Parks and Recreation Department, said the city and the Austin Geriatric Center have been working together on the redevelopment of the RBJ Center campus.

The project, Yanez said, “has the potential to positively affect the surrounding city parkland, by providing additional open space, (American With Disabilities) compliant connections and by contributing parkland dedication funds” for the Holly Shores/Edward Rendon Sr. Park master plan.

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