Barbara Scott has lived in the Colony Park neighborhood in East Austin for nearly 40 years, and says it sometimes feels like a forgotten place.
She said the area has no grocery store, health clinic, nice restaurants or park amenities, other than a 5-year-old recreation center that is being rebuilt because of major structural defects.
But Scott finds hope in 208 acres the city of Austin bought in Colony Park more than a decade ago.
Austin has received a $3 million federal grant to create a vision for the land as a mixed-use, sustainable community. Last month, the City Council hired a team led by Chicago-based Farr Associates and Austin-based Urban Design Group to write a master plan.
“The city seems willing to give the community a voice” on the master plan, said Scott, president of the Colony Park Neighborhood Association. “I would like to see something (on the land) that brings the neighborhood together.”
Austin bought 258 acres in Colony Park in 2001 for $3 million, said Zachary Stern, a planner at the city.
On 50 acres, the city built Turner-Roberts Recreation Center (the defective structure that is now being rebuilt) and plans to create a park in the future, Stern said. It also leased some of the land to the Austin school district to build Overton Elementary School.
The city had planned to put affordable housing on the remaining 208 acres, then decided to push for a mix of uses and apply for the federal grant, Stern said.
The 208-acre parcel is vacant and poses development challenges: It has some steep sections, soils that can shift easily and a few creeks run through it.
Stern said the goal of the master plan is to imagine the 208 acres with better transit options and a mix of housing, offices, retail and parks — a vibrant place where people could live, work and play.
Colony Park might now seem like a far-flung neighborhood, but it is close to major roads such as U.S. 183, U.S. 290 and Texas 130 and so is likely to draw more residents in the future, Stern said.
“It is on the edge of town, but growth is moving in that direction,” he said. “The area hasn’t seen much investment yet. Hopefully this plan will show that there is significant unmet demand there for services and development.”
Colony Park’s median income is $33,000, the average home value is $111,000 and most residents have little or no college education, according to census data. Most of the residents are Hispanic or African-American.
Margarita Decierdo, who has lived in Colony Park for seven years, said she would like the master plan to include basic amenities for current and future residents, including a park and grocery store.
“We don’t want to be a wasteland anymore,” she said. “We want this to be a destination where children can have a future and where adults can grow old and age in place.”
The design team will receive $2 million of the grant. Stern said the other $1 million will pay for city planners and University of Texas faculty and students to work on the planning effort — including UT students who will go door-to-door to survey Colony Park residents about what services they want to see in their neighborhood.
Doug Farr, president of Farr Associates, said the sprawl-style layout of Colony Park homes and the lack of services or stores in the area forces residents to travel nearly everywhere by car. He said he’d like to see the neighborhood have better transportation options (such as a stop along a commuter rail line that Capital Metro has discussed), more retail, buildings with environmentally friendly features to reduce energy costs and streetscapes that encourage walking.
The Colony Park master plan must be finished by December 2014. The city could then redevelop the land on its own, or it could team up with a private company to do so, Stern said. The city currently has no money available to build anything there, but it could issue bonds through a nonprofit arm of the city’s housing department, he said.
A model the city might try to replicate is the 700-acre Mueller development in East Austin. In 2004, the city signed an agreement with Catellus Development Group to transform that land — formerly the municipal airport — into a mix of housing, offices, parks and retail.