Colony Park at crossroads as area eyed for golf courses, development

Tucked into the northeastern corner of the city are neighborhoods that have fallen in the shadow of Austin’s economic boom.

As they watch large infusions of cash prop up new development elsewhere, residents of Colony Park and Lakeside say they are still waiting for basic amenities, such as a grocery store and restaurants.

But the area is approaching a crossroads.

The Austin City Council will soon decide whether to allow a developer to build two high-end golf courses at Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park.

On top of that, the city recently completed plans for a 208-acre mixed-income community that would include homes with green features, a park in every neighborhood and walkable streets. The 93 acres of adjacent parkland would be developed with trails, swimming pools and sports fields.

The city decided this week to study, along with Travis County, how to breathe life into the Travis County Exposition Center and Walter E. Long park — which one planner said could turn into a “Zilker Park East” that could host large events.

A little farther out, Austin Resource Recovery has plans to construct a new facility, which could include a hazardous waste collection center and recycling drop-off. Austin Energy is contemplating whether to build a new gas power plant at the Decker Creek Power Station site when the old one closes in 2018. And two developments — Indian Hills and Whisper Valley, which would have apartments, single-family homes, retail and office space — are planned adjacent to the Texas 130 tollway.

The question is whether these projects can coalesce to bring much-needed amenities and jobs to the area.

Barbara Scott, who’s president of the Colony Park Neighborhood Association, sees the golf courses as the catalyst for revitalizing the area, which has a mostly minority population and a high poverty rate.

But City Council Member Ora Houston, whose District 1 includes Colony Park, said the linchpin that will jump-start the region is missing from all the plans: employers to provide blue-collar jobs that pay a decent wage. And she worries that the efforts to revitalize the area weren’t coordinated from the start.

“There was no conversation so that there would be a more cohesive, a more intentional bringing together of these entities, so that everything is successful,” Houston said.

The golf courses

The months-long debate over Decker Lake Golf LLC’s proposal to build two PGA-quality golf courses at the city-owned park has taken place on many fronts, from the project’s water use to its financial projections.

But the conversation, which is slated to come to the City Council on Thursday, might be crystallizing around another subject — how the golf courses would affect nearby neighborhoods.

Written into the agreement between the developer and the city are certain sweeteners for the community, such as agreeing to interview any District 1 residents who meet the qualifications for the development’s jobs and setting aside a portion of the fee that nonresidents pay to play on the course for parks in that district.

Brandon Reed, who lives in Colony Park, doesn’t think that’s enough.

“When they say it’s an economic driver — an economic driver for $9-an-hour jobs?” Reed said.

Richard Smith, a renter who lives in a Colony Park fourplex, said displacement will follow the golf courses. Property values will rise, potentially benefiting some homeowners, but pushing out tenants who get stuck with higher rents, he said.

The average sales price of homes in the Colony Park area in 2013 was $141,159. The figure for the city as a whole was $294,507.

Scott pointed out that the golf courses would be far enough away from her neighborhood that it’s unlikely property values would skyrocket (though she wouldn’t mind seeing the value of her home, which has been on the decline, increase). And, she argues, a job is a job.

“At this point, we need jobs. It’s better than our young men standing on the corners selling dope,” Scott said.

Melvin Wrenn, who lives in Lakeside, said that, without the golf courses, a major development planned by the city won’t pan out.

“It’s dead,” Wrenn said. “There’s no money for it.”

Other pieces of the puzzle

More than a decade ago, the city swooped in and bought land in Colony Park that had been slated for manufactured housing. That land was divvied up between the parks department and the city’s Austin Housing Finance Corp.

In December, the City Council approved a plan for an environmentally conscious, walkable and transit-friendly development with a wide spectrum of housing types. The plan was funded by a $3 million federal grant, and the city is still exploring how to finance the development’s construction. One option is selling the entire site to a developer and setting up a taxing district.

The “Sustainable Communities” development could include a mixed-use center of retail, businesses and restaurants, as well as an “innovation district” that could include science, technology, engineering and math resources for children along with health care services, said Gina Copic, real estate development manager for the housing finance corporation.

One neighborhood in the development would be along Capital MetroRail’s proposed Elgin-to-downtown “Green Line,” and the plan envisions bus lines, bike routes and a hike-and-bike trail running through the entire site.

The plan includes housing types, such as duplexes and townhomes, that fall under what some call Austin’s “missing middle” — that is, housing between single-family homes and high-rises. Some homes in the development might also be built with “accessory dwelling units,” also called granny flats or garage apartments, that could have low rents and provide a secondary source of income for homeowners.

If the council approves the golf courses, Copic said, the city could discuss setting aside some of the housing for golf employees.

At least 20 percent of the housing will be set aside for those making up to 80 percent of the area’s median family income, and, when those residents move out, a new renter or homeowner could be required to meet the income qualifications.

Next door would be the 93-acre Colony Park District Park, which currently includes a recreation center and an elementary school but not much else. The city has about $1.5 million in bond money and state grant money to do some improvements, such as a quarter-mile trail and two playscapes, said Lyn Estabrook, a project manager for the parks department.

Carrying out the entire plan for the park — which envisions an aquatics center, gardens and several miles of trails — could take an additional $11 million, Estabrook said. That money could come from future bond packages or grants, she said.

There is no plan yet for overhauling the Travis County Exposition Center and Walter E. Long park, but the city and county are about to embark on a study of the space.

If the golf course deal is approved, the city would get some of the revenue that city officials have said could help pay for developing the park.

The cumulative impact

For decades, the money that’s trickled into the Colony Park area has gone to build such things as a water treatment plant or a jail, Wrenn said. That’s in part because Colony Park is at the far edge of Austin and hardly a magnet for development, Wrenn said.

Margarita Decierdo, head of the Colony Park/Lakeside Community Development Corp., said the lack of investment in the area also stems from a long-standing attitude that those on the eastern side of Interstate 35 don’t deserve a better quality of life. She and Scott are irked that some critics of the golf proposal don’t live in their neighborhood but still think they know what’s best for it.

Root cause aside, research speaks to the lack of amenities in the area.

A consultant’s market study said there is a lack of large multitenant shopping centers in the area, noting that residents said they sometimes go to the new H-E-B at Mueller or to Barton Creek Square mall for shopping. It’s estimated that Colony Park residents spend $26 million annually on food, but $20 million of that is spent outside their neighborhood.

But now, Wrenn said, there’s the potential for some of the planned developments or redevelopments to link together to bring more prosperity to the area.

Smith sees the collective impact of the new construction differently, saying it will bring wealthier, white residents into the neighborhood and displace current residents. (The area is predominantly Hispanic and black.)

Just look at East Austin, he said.

“That whole process was sold to the residents of East Austin as a benefit to them, so much so that they actually demanded East Austin revitalization, without taking into consideration what it was really going to mean,” Smith said.

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