Will Amazon’s HQ2 home be the old Motorola campus?

Eightfold Development of Austin has proposed its campus in East Austin for Amzaon’s HQ2 headquarters and envisions a main building in the shape of Amazon’s Alexa cloud-based voice device.

Austin is cited as one of the key cities for Amazon’s secondary headquarters, known as HQ2, that the company wants to build somewhere in North America. But even if the Austin City Council came up with the financial incentives to lure Amazon – and successfully hurdled the politics of awarding publicly-financed tax abatements and other sweeteners to a rich outsider – there would be the question of where Amazon could locate in Austin, given its gigantic footprint and many preferences.

After all, the e-commerce behemoth has not been shy about detailing the perks and features it expects from communities bidding on its $5 billion project that is projected to generate 50,000 jobs. And Austin leaders, while expressing their huge interest in luring Amazon, also have been clear about their preference that Amazon fits with Austin values and not the other way around.

In addition to incentives, Amazon is asking for “an urban or downtown campus, a development-prepped site,” adding “We want to encourage states/provinces and communities to think creatively for viable real estate options, while not negatively affecting our preferred timeline.”

And that’s not all. Amazon wants to be within one to two miles of major highways, with a building or buildings that can initially accommodate up to 500,000 square feet by 2019 and up to 8 million square feet (33 buildings) beyond 2027. And that’s not all.

Amazon wants to be near, within 45 miles of an airport, have restaurants, retail, cafes and other amenities on its site. It also wants access to public transportation on its second-home site.

There’s more, but that alone is a big challenge for Austin in providing those features on a site within minutes of downtown.

On Tuesday, I toured such a place. A place that time had forgotten, but is being revitalized and readied for Amazon – or something else. It’s the old Motorola plant and campus at 3501 Ed Bluestein Boulevard in East Austin.

Set off the road on 100-plus wooded acres, it is less than five miles from downtown and about six miles to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Within 12 months, the site will yield about 500,000 square feet of office space with a potential of 5 million to 9 million square feet ultimately as it is built out. The latter will require zoning variances to build taller than the 60 feet now permitted.

Touring the campus is a throwback to Austin before the city was discovered by Formula One, Apple, Google and the hordes of hipsters that have relocated to the city. Then, Austin was laid back, weird and, goodness knows, affordable. A single mother of two, as I was in the late 1980s, could rent a house in East Austin and still put food on the table.

Developer Adam Zarafshani of Eightfold Development is touting the campus for Amazon, but makes clear even without Amazon, the campus, an ugly duckling when Eightfold acquired it, is being transformed into a swan through an $800 million, five-year redevelopment.

Where now there are abandoned buildings under renovation and redesign, he envisions a mixed-use community, complete with an urban farm, cafes, wellness and health clinics, computer labs and space for arts organizations and other nonprofits. He says he already has partnerships with Huston-Tillotson University, Austin Free-Net and Fusebox, a nonprofit arts organization, which will lease space or get it for free. It will be, Zarafshani says, a city within a city, with about 3,000 housing units, many that would be rented at rates teachers can afford. And it will be sustainable, with 75 percent of its power coming from solar energy, he says.

It’s the kind of development that compliments East Austin rather than insults it. It won’t displace long-time residents or drive up neighborhood property values, since it’s in a part of town known more for industry and commerce than for homes and neighborhoods. And most of the buildings are being renovated rather than raised. There will be a museum on site telling of Motorola’s history in Austin, featuring many items, such as an old cappuccino machine and era furniture, reclaimed from the renovation.

There are panoramic views and trails. And the campus has an Austin Energy power substation that was built for Motorola. And the Capital Metro Green line – that proposes to connect Austin with passenger rail service to Manor and Elgin – runs alongside the southeaster corner of the property.

With so much competition – upwards of 200 cities in the United States and Canada – vying for Amazon’s HQ2 project, it’s anyone’s guess which city will prevail when Amazon makes its decision next year. Even if Austin beats out the competition, there is no guarantee Amazon will choose the Eightfold site. But bids are due on Oct. 19 and Eightfold believes its development would be just the right fit.

Perhaps. But with or without Amazon, the old Motorola campus is being revitalized, rebuilt and repurposed. After a 12-year sleep, it’s a welcome awakening.

 

Local LULAC’s ‘State Of Latino’ guide is helpful summary of best practices

Juan Rodriguez and Mary Lou Rodriguez dance as Celsius band performs during The La Condesa 7th-Annual Cinco de Mayo Downtown Block Party on Tuesday, May 5, 2015. Cinco de Mayo is the celebration of the 1862 Mexican victory at the Battle of Puebla over France, which occupied Mexico. The May 5th holiday has come to be a sort of Hispanic St. Patrick's Day in the United States that is celebrated by people of every ethnic background. (RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
Juan Rodriguez and Mary Lou Rodriguez dance as Celsius band performs during The La Condesa 7th-Annual Cinco de Mayo Downtown Block Party on Tuesday, May 5, 2015. (RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

In an increasingly gentrified city, even well-intentioned projects can have a negative effect on existing communities if the overall needs of a specific population aren’t taken into consideration.

So then, how can policymakers avoid overlooking obvious solutions? Members of the League of United Latin American Citizens District XII say they have an answer: Read the recommendations in its recently released “State Of Latinos Austin Texas 2016” guide.

The report, which was presented last month, is a summary of best practices, existing projects and other initiatives already underway in various sectors in Austin. The compilation of so much information offers valuable insight. With a still new 10-1 Austin City Council structure, it makes sense to have a resource that council members can use to familiarize themselves with many of these initiatives as they work on new policies and programs.

The document, LULAC’s District XII members say, aims to “provide some guidance on deliberate steps toward ending persistent racial outcome disparities in specific policy areas.” There’s no way around it; because of Austin’s history of discrimination, disadvantages associated with race remain deeply embedded in the city.

As a solution, LULAC’s report lists three reminders for social change. They are:

  • Include equity as a criteria for inclusion and prioritization of policies.
  • Target benefits to Latinos and other vulnerable populations.
  • Prioritize the provision of resources where they’re most needed.

Currently, the catch-all term that addresses much of the inequalities that persist is “affordability.” But as we all know, affordability doesn’t have the same meaning for everyone. For many low-income individuals and families — of which the majority are Latino and African-American — affordability can equate to the ability to meet basic necessities. And, as history shows, helping low-income residents has rarely been a priority for Austin’s leaders and policymakers.

But things are changing.

Today, local leaders and organizations are increasingly partaking in crucial conversations about affordability and inequality in Austin. Much good work is already being done – including in the business, health, housing and education sectors – to address the issue. However, many of those efforts are fragmented.

That’s bad news. When policymakers don’t have the whole picture, it’s easy for things to get lost in the cracks, members of LULAC’s District XII say. That’s why they created the report.

“The guide is a reminder, and a starting point in some cases, for city leaders to focus attention on specific details and to identify core issues and introduce the vocabulary of racial equity into conversations,” Cynthia Valadez, a member of the group, told me.

The concerns outlined by the document align with the city’s Hispanic Quality of Life initiative, which aims to determine what the city can do to improve opportunities and living experiences for Hispanics, a historically underserved community. Since launching the initiative in 2008, the city invested in demographic research and analysis, collected community feedback and had an oversight committee in 2013 – the Hispanic Latino Quality of Life Resource Advisory Commission – present a final report with recommendations.

Following the recommendations of the 2013 report, the city has made some changes, like increasing funding and expanding programs at the Department Health and Human Services, as well as creating a Hispanic/Latino Leadership Program at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center.

What about all the other recommendations made in the report? What’s the status of those?

As David Green, the city’s media relations manager, told me, “there isn’t a single master list of the myriad actions the city has taken in regards to the recommendations from the June 2013 report.” It makes sense to have a master list to reference, which could act as a reminder of what else needs to be done.

What’s next for the Hispanic Latino Quality of Life Resource Advisory Commission is presenting a summary later this year that will outline actions and more recommendations, Green said in an email.

It would be wise for the committee to take a good look at LULAC’s guide to ensure the best outcomes for all present and future initiatives targeting low-income Austinites.

Looking forward, the LULAC guide will not only benefit city leaders and policymakers, it could become a vital instrument for the person who serves as the city’s chief equity officer – a newly created seat that has no official start date. That post will lead the newly formed city of Austin’s Diversity and Equity Office. The creation of the office was a direct result of the requests made by Hispanic/Latino Quality of Life Advisory Commission members. Currently, the city is searching for a candidate for the job and has scheduled community forums for feedback about which qualities Austinites would like to see in this new leader.

With so much work still left on the affordability front, the LULAC guide would be a useful tool of reference for all city leaders.