Austin American Statesman

Change Around Bend

By Shonda Novak

Just a short drive from downtown is a pocket of East Austin rich in history and diversity, a melting pot of people of different cultural, ethnic and economic backgrounds and bordered by an ecologically diverse stretch of the Colorado River inhabited by blue herons, egrets and other wildlife.

Perched above the riverbank, the Red Bluff area includes the stretch of East Cesar Chavez bounded by Pleasant Valley Road, U.S. 183 and the Colorado River. Many of its older, modest homes are tucked in neighborhoods behind the muffler and metal shops, auto repair bays, paint and body shops and other businesses that line East Cesar Chavez.

A look along Red Bluff Road, where developers want to put a hotel, replacing the blue warehouse and other businesses along the river's edge.

A look along Red Bluff Road, where developers want to put a hotel, replacing the blue warehouse and other businesses along the river's edge.

With mostly industrial zoning in place for decades, it has been largely untouched by new development.

Recently, though, developers have taken notice of the area, signaling that change — and the kind not everyone is happy about — has arrived, with more on the way:

• Trendy restaurants are opening along Cesar Chavez in the Red Bluff area. They include the Cajun/Creole-inspired Sawyer & Co., which replaced Arkie’s Grill, an Austin institution for decades. And Jacoby’s Restaurant & Mercantile, which has a backyard patio with river views and serves up gourmet burgers and dishes like crusted rainbow trout and roasted frog legs.

• On the north side of Cesar Chavez, entrepreneur Bridget Dunlap will open a new location for Lustre Pearl, the watering hole that launched a bar scene along Rainey Street downtown. Though the new Lustre Pearl will be both a restaurant and a bar, some Red Bluff residents say they are concerned it will set off a wave of bars that will bring late-night traffic, noise, music and parking problems. They don’t want their area turned into another bar district like Rainey Street or Sixth Street. Lustre Pearl will be in the Tillery Square neighborhood, where some houses are less than 50 feet from the bar and an elementary school is a block away.

• An upscale hotel is planned for the western edge of Red Bluff Road overlooking the Colorado River. The developers’ request to build closer to the shore than the city’s waterfront ordinance allows sparked opposition from some residents who fear it would set a precedent and open the door for more density along the waterfront. Residents say they are concerned that additional density, coupled with the prospect of an emerging district of bars and restaurants, could harm the river and surrounding ecology, which includes a wildlife sanctuary and the 362-acre Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Park.

In working toward a possible resolution, the city plans to look into realigning the intersection of Red Bluff Road and Cesar Chavez to keep the developers from encroaching onto the protected shoreline. The hotel developers and some of the area residents “are in the process of evaluating the options and opportunities that may bring,” said Richard Suttle Jr., the Austin attorney for the developers.

Red Bluff District

The area that includes the stretch of East Cesar Chavez bounded by Pleasant Valley Road, U.s. 183 and the Colorado River is the latest part of East Austin to see gentrification coming its way. Below are some of the new and planned venues and businesses in the area.

Sources: Developers, AAS research                                                                                 Robert Calzada/Staff

Sources: Developers, AAS research                                                                                 Robert Calzada/Staff

Those are just a few of the new and proposed venues that some Red Bluff residents see as a harbinger of more development, following the gentrification trend that is sweeping other parts of East Austin.

Gina Grande, a Red Bluff resident, and other concerned neighbors are mobilizing to ensure that existing protections for the Colorado River are maintained and that the area’s character is preserved as much as possible as development encroaches.

Grande said the residents are not opposed to development but want new projects to fit with the surrounding community, adhere to existing rules for development along the waterfront, and respect the area’s history and its ecological treasures.

“We are not against development on the whole, but it must be regulated,” Grande said. “Austin has always had a visible alcohol culture where one bar begets many more and the area becomes a ‘bar district,’ and there seems to be no regulation on this.”

Daniel Llanes, a performance artist who lives in the Red Bluff area, said that East Austin historically was “the dumping ground for all the stuff the city didn’t want.”

Over the decades, neighbors fought the tank farms and other industrial pollution, and in time those types of businesses were removed, he said.

When a neighborhood plan was created in the early 2000s, Llanes said, more than 600 sites that had been zoned for industrial purposes were rezoned for mixed-use or residential purposes. Within the past decade or so, a wave of upscale residential developments, bars and restaurants began locating east of Interstate 35, first on East Sixth Street and more recently along East Cesar Chavez.

Now, Llanes said, it’s the tide of gentrification and “monolithic development” — namely the bars and restaurants that create traffic and noise well into the evenings — that he and other activists are working to stem.

“We want diversity of development, not just bars, and certainly not a bar scene,” he said. “This is what we will resist.”

Grande said she and other neighbors want to ensure that the area’s small business owners and residents, especially those with lower incomes, “are protected from real estate opportunists whose principal interest is how much money they can make turning neighborhoods with authentic Austin character into the next tourist and party district.”

‘Going to get run over’

Red Bluff is part of a larger area that includes the Govalle and Johnston Terrace neighborhoods. In 2003, the city approved a neighborhood plan for the entire area, which was created with input from from residents, business and property owners, and others with a stake in the area.

The tract where the Red Bluff hotel is proposed, and to the west of it, is envisioned as a mixed-use district with small-scale retail, personal services, restaurants or other commercial uses. The plan contemplates a continuation of the existing single-family and multifamily residential uses along Red Bluff Road east of the hotel site.

On the north side of Cesar Chavez, the plan calls for a mixed-use employment district, continuing the existing mix of local manufacturing and commercial uses.

Sabino “Pio” Renteria is the Austin City Council member whose district includes the Red Bluff, Govalle, Johnson Terrace and nearby Holly neighborhoods. Renteria said the areas lack cohesive, transparent and inclusive neighborhood representation.

Based on what he’s hearing from some constituents, he said, just a few people tend to speak for the whole, while the larger membership is kept in the dark on issues in the community.

Renteria says he will address those concerns with all the groups in meetings he plans to hold. He wants to see the neighborhood leaders be more representative of, and responsive to, the membership of their larger associations.

“If you’re really concerned about preserving your neighborhood, you have to sit down and meet with the whole community,” Renteria said. “That’s the only way the community is going to survive.”

If the neighborhoods don’t mobilize in a unified fashion, he said, “they’re going to get run over” by the lobbyists who represent developers at City Hall.

‘Protect what we already have’

Chris Brown is, in his words, one of Red Bluff’s “gentrifiers.” A technology lawyer in Austin, he said he moved to the area because he loves the river and the urban woods that lie behind the old factories and gravel pits.

Brown said he wanted to be part of a diverse community like Red Bluff and wants to see it stay that way.

“To be successful, Austin needs to continue to attract the creative class and provide a nice home for the working class. Instead, it seems like we are focused on the drinking class — with development centered around bar districts and adult entertainment attractions that cater to short-term visitors instead of building a sustainable community,” Brown said.

The current approach to development, he said, seems to mainly benefit big real estate interests “building big, ugly boxes that look like they were designed by spreadsheets to maximize revenue per foot at the expense of all other considerations.”

For Brown and others, the overarching concern is protecting the river, wildlife and open space against dense development.

“It’s a free-flowing river inside the city,” Red Bluff resident Nicholas Castrop said. “That’s about as wild as you can get. With every new resident or every new development, the wildlife is being pushed further and further out.”

Brown and others want to see existing waterfront setback rules adhered to and as much parkland set aside as possible.

“Great cities as diverse as Houston and Munich are spending millions to try to restore their urban rivers to some semblance of natural conditions,” Brown said. “We just need to protect what we already have.”

‘An important precedent’

Not everyone is optimistic about the area’s future, and David Moriaty takes an especially dim view.

Moriaty bought his property on Red Bluff in January 1979. On July 4 of that year, he said, his late wife, Sara Clark, looked across the Colorado River at a man on horseback herding cows and said, “If we don’t do something right now, we’re going to be looking at a Wal-Mart parking lot.”

Sara began a letter-writing campaign to the City Council.

“Amazingly, we got replies within a week, first from the council, then from then-City Manager Dan Davidson. Seems a lady on the parks board, Roberta Crenshaw, owned the land (now Guerrero Park) and she would gladly give it for a park. In 1985, the Town Lake Corridor Task Force extended the protections of the waterfront zoning overlay for Lady Bird Lake downstream to the Montopolis Bridge.”

Moriaty said he is mistrustful of the changes he is seeing to the area.

“I hope we may find that rare instance where greed and the public interest coincide, but I see little chance in this case, as bar districts and single-family homes are not all that compatible, unless you get rid of the families,” he said.

Moriaty said he thinks granting an exception for the developers of the proposed Red Bluff hotel to build within a no-build zone is a bad idea.

“The developers bought the property knowing full well they were not allowed to build a hotel there. They arrogantly assumed their money and influence would nullify the (waterfront) overlay, and, barring a miracle, they are right,” he said. “This will set an important precedent for other developers waiting in the wings.”

Suttle, the attorney for the developers, said the neighborhood doesn’t oppose the hotel itself, only the request for an exception to build in the primary setback from the waterfront.

“I don’t think the area is susceptible to becoming a ‘bar district,’ but restaurants have and will continue to be viable uses along Cesar Chavez,” Suttle said. “Variances to the setbacks should be site-specific according to how the setbacks affect the reasonable use of the property.”

Suttle said he thinks that, in most cases, the setbacks prescribed in the waterfront area “adequately address and balance the public interest in avoiding the ‘canyon effect’ that buildings can pose if built too close and too tall along the lake.”

However, in some cases, variances can result in a better project than one that fully complies with existing rules, Suttle said.

Donna Galati, a principal planner with the city, said seven variances have been granted — none in the Red Bluff area — since the current waterfront rules were passed in June 2009.

Jesse Lunsford and Dale Glover, the developers credited with launching the Rainey Street district, have now set their sights on what they’ve dubbed the Red Bluff district, brokering the deals that brought Jacoby’s Restaurant & Mercantile and Lustre Pearl to the area.

Glover said he and Lunsford want to develop projects that fit within existing zoning rules and the overall neighborhood plan, and that are “human scale, walkable, support local businesses and capture the soul of Austin.”

In a recent interview, Lunsford said he and Glover are “very proud to have transformed some unwelcoming industrial spaces into places where the community can now come with their friends and family to enjoy dinner surrounded by some of Austin’s finest natural beauty.”

But Grande said the local residents have property rights, too — “including the rights of tenants and homeowners not to be deprived of the enjoyment of their own property by new neighbors who view them as inconvenient because they are occupying ‘underutilized’ properties.”