West Campus

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Photo Credit: Sarah Montgomery | Daily Texan Staff

Major real estate developer American Campus Communities has dominated management of several West Campus apartment complexes and will be likely expanding in the future, realtors say.

With the establishment of The Callaway House this summer in West Campus, American Campus Communities, which manages and owns the new property, pursued and gained ownership over The Castilian, 26 West, The Block, The Penthouse at Callaway and The Texan as well as Vintage West Campus. 

Joe Yager, real estate agent for Uptown Realty LLC and founder of Active Property Management & MR+D, said that the expansion of American Campus Communities should be something for potential buyers to look out for in West Campus.

“I think their overall play is to acquire more assets,” Yager said. “Although, I am not sure of any specific properties they are currently targeting in the West Campus market.”

According to Yager, there is a significant aspect of danger in the prospect of American Campus Communities acquiring so many properties in such a condensed area of real estate.

“I think they want to dominate the market, if you will,” Yager said. “This would allow them to control the prices of real estate.”

Bill Bayless, CEO of American Campus Communities, said in the fall 2013 leasing update that despite adding so many properties and taking ownership of two additional portfolios, the company still has room for improvement in the upcoming 2014-15 year.

“We are generally pleased with the overall 2013 leasing progress on the heels of integrating $2.2 billion in assets into our portfolio,” Bayless said. “Our leasing results put us near the mid-point of our FFOM guidance range of $2.20 to $2.26 per share and offer opportunity for improvement in the 2014–2015 academic year.”

Gina Cowart, vice president of marketing and investor relations at American Campus Communities, said that as of right now, expansion is not the company’s focus.

“We have no immediate plans to expand our footprint in West Campus, but we are focused on delivering the best living experience to our current residents,” Cowart said. “We are so thrilled to have a presence in our hometown and be actively engaged in the community.”

Although American Campus Communities may decide to hold off on expansion because of their current large number of assets, the large portion of apartment complexes under their ownership in West Campus already gives the company some control over prices in the neighborhood, said Richie Gill, real estate broker and principal of Longhorn Central Realty.

“The properties owned by American Campus Communities are Class A properties, which means that they get leased very easily giving the company current pricing control,” Gill said. “West Campus has a high barrier to breach with new properties, so ACC’s ownership cuts out the little guys.”

Foodies and downtown residents alike cheered last week when Trader Joe’s announced that it would open its first Austin store adjacent to the Seaholm Power Plant, only blocks away from competitor Whole Foods Market’s flagship store and headquarters. The store will not only provide more options for Central Texans in an already competitive high-end grocery market, but give downtown residents a more affordable option for groceries in their neighborhood.

Meanwhile, students living in West Campus continue to have to drive or take the bus to do their weekly shopping. For many West Campus residents, Whole Foods’ downtown store is geographically the nearest national supermarket, though higher prices send many students to H-E-B on 43rd Street or Randalls on 38½ Street.

Wheatsville Food Co-op, located at 32nd and Guadalupe streets in Hyde Park is the nearest full service grocery store to campus. The store is a favorite among socially-aware and health-conscious students, as well as those interested in supporting local and organic foods. Nonetheless, many students bypass Wheatsville for cheaper store brands and sale items at larger supermarkets.

Last year the University Co-op opened Co-op Market on the Drag. The store was meant as a way to provide more food options closer to students living in West Campus and in University housing. Though the market usually stocks some produce, the selection and prices are no replacement for a traditional, full-service grocer.

As West Campus’ population has grown, convenience stores and corner bodegas have opened across the neighborhood, providing easy access to sugary drinks, salty snacks and alcohol. These corner stores help to make living in West Campus more convenient by making it possible to walk down the block to purchase soda or milk but do little to promote healthy cooking and eating. While healthier food options such as the weekly farmers markets downtown and at The Triangle are available to students, they require special trips and don’t offer the all-day access of a traditional brick and mortar supermarket.

Construction sites around the neighborhood indicate continued growth in West Campus. As more students move into the neighborhood, it will become increasingly important for policymakers at the neighborhood and city levels to decide if West Campus will become a thriving urban neighborhood or whether it will function merely as an oversized dormitory for university students. While the concentration of a transient student population may keep West Campus from developing into a district as vibrant as downtown, this doesn’t mean the neighborhood should be made up of only large apartment blocks punctuated by occasional convenience stores and fast food restaurants.

The latest census results show nearly 10,000 residents living in West Campus, making it the most densely populated neighborhood in the entire city. And while books like David Owen’s “Green Metropolis” explain the environmental benefits of dense urban living, a high concentration of housing units alone is not enough to create an urban environment that is as pleasurable to live in as it is environmentally sensitive. On KLRU’s television series “Downtown,” UT architecture professor Larry Speck explains that urban density is “not so much about the volume of people as it is about the close packing of activities.” While West Campus already has an appreciable volume of people, it falls short when it comes to a density of activities.

The announcement of Trader Joe’s new store in downtown serves as a sort of coming-of-age for the neighborhood. With the addition of a cost-competitive supermarket, downtown Austin becomes less like an urban frontier and more like the thriving, everyday place to live it is intended to become in the Downtown Austin Plan. This contrasts with West Campus, which has seen an even greater quantity of physical change than downtown but at a lesser quality.

As Austin’s population climbs, city planners and neighborhood officials must take care to make sure that growing neighborhoods including West Campus offer a diverse array of activities and services in addition to a place to sleep at night. Getting a grocery store in the neighborhood would be a good start, not only for the health of students, but also for the health of the neighborhood.

Finke is an architecture and urban studies senior.

A West Campus neighborhood association could try and install up to 400 new parking meters in the area after City Council approved an ordinance Thursday.

City Council passed a resolution that sets up a process for neighborhood associations to install parking meters and use a little more than half of the profits for infrastructure improvement and to promote alternative modes of transportation. Neighborhood organizations that wish to install meters and create a parking benefit district must hold a meeting so that community members can vote on the proposed district before it goes to the director or to council.

The council passed the resolution unanimously at yesterday’s meeting, said Matt Parkerson, executive assistant in the office of councilman and sponsor of the ordinance Chris Riley. The ordinance requires that a representative of a neighborhood organization that wishes to apply for a parking benefit district file an application with the director of the Austin Department of Transportation and then with the City Council.

Many members of the Central Austin Neighborhood Planning Advisory Committee, a group of representatives from neighborhoods with heavy student populations, including the University Area Partners, support installing parking meters. UAP, a group of churches, realtors and other groups with stakes in West Campus, aims to have about 400 parking meters installed in the area, said John Lawler, a member of CANPAC. While 51 percent of net funds from the meters are required to be set aside for improvements in the district, the amount of money that will be made from the meters will not make much of a dent, he said.

“The models for it are based upon typical sidewalks, while we have large pedestrian avenues and bicycle lanes,” Lawler said. “The phrase we’ve been using is ‘You’re just spitting in the ocean.’ It’s not going to make that big of a difference.”

Students can fight any proposal that UAP makes before it even reaches the council, Lawler said. Even if it can’t be stopped at the public forum, they can follow it to the council, he said.

“We have never heard or sensed that the majority would be in support of parking meters in West Campus,” he said. “We’re working off that assumption. When we held a town hall last session and brought up the subject, every student in the room was against it.”

CANPAC and the UAP believe that creating a parking benefit district in the West Campus area will make parking garage prices more competitive and contribute to improved lighting in West Campus, which will cut down on nighttime crime, said Brian Donovan, a member of CANPAC and University Area Partners. It may take years until any improvements are made, but eventually the meters would fund West Campus infrastructure including improved bike and pedestrian lanes, he said.

“There are students who have argued angrily that it’s a tax on students, but it’s a tax on drivers to make bikers and pedestrians safer,” Donovan said. “I think it’s fair enough for students to be angry, but the reality is that these improvements cost money.”