AUSTIN (KXAN) — After about 15 years, the City of Austin said it’s closer to redeveloping the former Home Depot site in the St. Johns neighborhood, along with the former Chrysler Dealership.
In a press release Tuesday, the city’s economic development department said it has entered the next phase of redevelopment for the 19-acre site with its development partners, Greystar Development Central, LLC, and the Housing Authority of the City of Austin (HACA).
The release noted city council members authorized negotiation and execution of the agreement in July 2021, and the agreement was finally executed April 13 of this year.
The department said staff is now supposed to come before city council in November “to share development terms for the site based on community input gathered over the next few months,” according to the release.
The city council member for that district, Chito Vela, said that means they’re still finalizing the master plan design details and some other terms. He hopes to see those finalized in November, and the project launch in the spring.
According to the city’s April agreement document, the city wants affordable housing to be a “significant” part of the property, with at least 50% of the units set aside as income-restricted rentals — something neighbors have asked for.
“That mean[s] that people that, for whatever reason, have left the St. John — that was once 100% Black — will have an opportunity if they want to, to come back,” said Thelma Williams.
Williams has lived in the neighborhood since she was seven years old and has acquired the title of “Grandma Wisdom.”
You can see why just by standing on her sidewalk — dozens of signs along her fence and in her yard with slogans like, “Love is a verb,” and “Fighting against hurt and hate,” and “Are we doing our best?”
She calls it her “Love Yard.”
At 81 years old, she’s injecting love into her neighborhood in another way, too: by advocating for her neighbors.
“We’re cutting the ribbon to… open up for the park,” she said as she points to a picture of her and former city council member Greg Casar at St. Johns Park.
She and other neighbors advocated for another point in the city’s agreement with Greystar: to lease a “significant” portion of commercial space in the development at the St. Johns site to local businesses and non-profits, according to the agreement.
“People would would like to have some kind of training program there,” said Williams.
But Vela said as they finalize plans, all of the neighbors’ wishes may not come true.
“Now that we’re kind of getting to the final stages and looking at the financial realities, we might have to figure out which of those are a priority,” he said.
He hopes high on the list is somehow honoring the Black roots of the neighborhood — something Williams also wants.
“We suffered, we worked, we built, we did the best we could. And I don’t want my kids and my grandkids and great grandkids not to know that,” Williams said. “So, I don’t want history buried. That’s my greatest concern.”
She said most of her neighborhood is now comprised of Hispanic Americans, and she doesn’t want the new development to push them out.
“I think the Black community was hurt enough, and I don’t want to see a whole ‘nother, other hurt by what what they’re doing,” she said.
The release said the St. John Redevelopment Team, made up of the City of Austin, Greystar Development Central, LLC, and HACA, will offer small group discussions with neighbors and community leaders over the next couple months.
One of the first opportunities will come next weekend, said the city, in a resource fair at Virginia L. Brown Recreation Center, 7500 Blessing Ave., from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The city said the free family event will have food, music and children’s activities, along with the opportunity to learn more about the St. Johns project and provide feedback.
Background: A site untouched for years
The City of Austin first purchased the former Home Depot property with $6.9 million in tax dollars from a 2006 public safety bond. Initially, it was supposed become a new police substation and municipal court.
“It was just sort of decrepit, and like, kind of went into neglect,” said Akeem McLennon, St. John Neighborhood Association president.
Since then, ideas have included everything from low-income housing to a recreation space and government facility, to a sanctioned homeless encampment proposed last year.
It all left some neighbors disheartened.
“Especially during the pandemic… people were growing concern that maybe the city had forgotten,” explained McLennon. “Especially those who had lived there the longest, because it seemed to be a part of a pattern of the city sort of forgetting about the neighborhood.”
Vela acknowledged the frustrating timeline.
“There was kind of a period of uncertainty where we weren’t sure what we were going to do. So. I think that was really what pushed this back quite a ways,” Vela said.