Proposed Riverside makeover will harm students

Ryan Young

Traffic on Interstate 35 permitting, the student apartments at Riverside are just a 15-minute UT shuttle ride from campus. Surrounded by aging strip malls, bisected by the quiet Country Club Creek and neighboring the forests of the Ray G. Guerrero River Park, this student community is quiet, peaceful and laid-back — everything that West Campus is not.

By choosing to live in Riverside, students trade closeness to campus for ample parking, tennis courts and green spaces. It’s the kind of relaxed living arrangement that Marina Flores, a fourth-year sociology major who lives in the Ballpark Apartments, appreciates. “It’s just more enjoyable to get away from campus … to not be surrounded by all that all the time,” Flores said.

But Riverside may not stay that way for long.

A cocky Los Angeles developer is eyeing Riverside to construct a supersized “urban village.” If approved by the city, the plan would demolish the Ballpark East student apartments and build 160-foot skyscrapers in their place.

The concept, called Project Catalyst, has been dubbed “Austin’s next Domain,” in reference to the neighborhood built in a similar fashion — close-in buildings, narrow streets and mixed-use high-rises. The Domain, located just north of the Pickle Research Campus, has itself been billed “Austin’s second downtown” for its trendy, high-priced attractions including an Apple Store. Sterile, impersonal and bourgeois, the Domain is hardly worthy of that title.

Bye-bye Riverside. Redevelopment on this scale indicates that more development is on its way.

“Across the entire United States, city cores are rebounding,” said Jake Wegmann, architecture assistant professor who studies affordable housing. “In a place like Austin, any property within … five, six, maybe even eight miles of downtown is going to have pressure on it going forward.”

Riverside, despite its reputation for affordability, is within spitting distance of downtown. The fact that it’s already slated for redevelopment is the proverbial canary that signals demand for more to come. “Real estate development happens in response to rapidly escalating land prices,” Wegmann said. “By the time buildings are being built, it’s too late to really reverse that fundamental dynamic.”

In other words, Riverside is facing the G-word: gentrification. And unlike the New York City case studies in your urban studies textbook, the people that stand to lose are the Longhorns with whom you go to class, form study groups and participate in clubs with every day.

Lifestyle preferences aside, students call Riverside home for more quantitative reasons: good UT shuttle service and lower costs of living. Flores, for example, currently pays $600 a month for a bedroom that previously cost her $1000 in West Campus.

“I think it’s a big issue for the University, a big issue for students — particularly as UT tries hard to be accessible to everyone in Texas and not only students from higher-income backgrounds,”

Wegmann said.

Flores was shocked when informed about the proposed development, which could spell the end for affordable housing in Riverside. “Why can’t they find somewhere else to put that?” Flores said. “Where else are these students supposed to live?”

If Project Catalyst kicks off a chain reaction that causes that price difference to evaporate, then it’s on the city — and UT — to answer those questions.

Young is a computer science senior from Bakersfield, California. He is a senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @ryanayng