Project kicks off to remake RBJ Center for seniors


Project will double the number of affordable housing units for seniors, to 504.

Most seniors who live at the RBJ Center have incomes of less than $13,000 a year.

A redevelopment project that will double the amount of affordable senior housing at the Rebekah Baines Johnson Center just east of Interstate 35 is set to break ground Tuesday.

The nonprofit Austin Geriatric Center founded and operates the 16-story RBJ Center, an independent living facility for seniors and people with disabilities that is named for the mother of late President Lyndon B. Johnson. The former president’s daughter Luci Baines Johnson is scheduled to speak at the groundbreaking, along with state and local officials.

The redevelopment project, to be carried out in phases over the next five years, will bring to 500 the number of affordable senior housing apartments on the 17.8-acre site just north of Lady Bird Lake.

“After a lot of work and input by our residents, our neighbors, the project team and our friends at the city of Austin, we are finally ready to break ground on this important expansion of affordable housing for seniors” said Clarke Heidrick, chairman of Austin Geriatric Center’s board.

The center opened its doors in 1972. It currently has 245 apartments for seniors at affordable rents.

Many residents, whose average age is 72 and some of whom have disabilities, have incomes of less than $13,000 a year, said Paul Saldaña, vice chairman of the Austin Geriatric Center’s board.

As part of a master-plan for the RBJ site, a five-story building will be added that will wrap around the existing tower at 21 Waller St., Saldaña said. The new building, which will take about two years to construct, will have 279 affordable apartments for seniors, plus a 412-space parking garage and numerous amenities, including a fitness center and theater.

Once that building is completed, residents in the existing tower will be relocated to the new units so the existing tower can be remodeled, an estimated 14-month project. The remodeled tower will have 225 affordable apartments for seniors, as well as a new community room, an art studio and a 16th-floor observation lounge with city views.

The Austin Geriatric Center plans to sell about 7 acres of the property, which will be redeveloped with a building that will have market-rate residential and commercial uses. Proceeds from the land sale will help fund some of the redevelopment costs.

The Austin Geriatric Center’s partners in the redevelopment include DMA Development Co., a developer and owner of affordable senior housing, Momark Development and Southwest Strategies Group.

DMA will lead the development of the new five-story building and the renovation of the existing tower. Momark and Southwest Strategies will develop market-rate housing and commercial and retail space on the site.

Any new structures will be limited to 60 feet in height, Saldaña said, to comply with a neighborhood plan and the city’s waterfront development rules.

In the next few weeks, work is due to start on the infrastructure to support the redevelopment of the entire site. That work should wrap up in about seven months.

Heidrick said the infrastructure work and the new building will cost an estimated $48 million and the tower renovation will cost an estimated $31 million, bringing the project’s total cost to $79 million.

Financing will come from several sources, including affordable housing bond money and tax credits, plus $5 million from city of Austin affordable housing bonds. A capital campaign is also planned to raise $5 million to $10 million to close any gaps, Saldaña said.

Saldaña said the redevelopment of the RBJ Center site has special meaning. Saldaña grew up on Riverview Street just a couple of blocks from the site. He used to play in the fountain at the back of the RBJ property and still knows many of the neighbors.

“Personally, it’s very important to me,” Saldaña said.

With most RBJ Center residents having annual incomes of less than $13,000, “we’re really providing deep affordable housing” to a population that is among the city’s most vulnerable, Saldaña said. He said that current residents will remain eligible to continue living in the new and renovated buildings, based on current income limits for the affordable units.

“If we didn’t have this tower, more than likely these seniors wouldn’t be able to find any place else in Austin to live,” Saldaña said. “It’s a priority for the board to update and improve the amenities, and ultimately improve the quality of life for them.”

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