East Austin’s Talavera Lofts presents a new face for affordable housing.
Client DMA Companies
Architect Nelsen Partners
Contractor Skybeck Construction
Civil Engineer Stantec
MEP Engineer WGI
Structural Engineer Connect Structural
Interior Design PDR
Landscape Architect dwg.
Even on a sweltering summer morning, cyclists, pedestrians, and the occasional light rail train hum by Talavera Lofts, a new affordable housing building in East Austin. The five-story apartment building itself invokes movement; it is clad in corrugated metal oriented horizontally, amplifying the sense of horizontal motion of the transit around it. The building’s exterior reflects and celebrates its proximity to the railroad, its rounded, silo-like corners providing the illusion of a flatiron form.
The 87,482-gsf building comfortably embraces the strangeness of its site — a triangular configuration formed by the railroad on its northern edge and the Lance Armstrong Bikeway on its southern edge — an awkwardness that discouraged potential development for years. (The site had been reserved to fulfill the required affordable housing entitlement of the Plaza Saltillo mixed-use development.)
Local developer DMA Companies, with frequent collaborators Nelsen Partners, was selected to develop the project on the challenging site. Creating a strong visual identity was a priority for the design team, who hoped to challenge existing perceptions of what affordable housing can look like. “A site this tight talks back to you really loudly,” says Phil Crisara, AIA, executive vice president of Nelsen Partners.
Despite the site’s advantageous location for transit options, the plot posed many obstacles for development, including noise, its extreme proximity to the railroad, and its aforementioned shape. According to Carson Nelsen, a partner and director at Nelsen Partners, the “constraints really motivated the design.”
The building nimbly addresses its context. Enhanced glass reduces noise pollution from nearby live music and from the train, and a terrace, neatly carved out above the ground floor, buffers units on the north edge from the railroad. The small site posed challenges for stormwater management, which local landscape architecture firm dwg. resolved with a below-grade detention tank in the parking garage and a rain garden on the building’s public southern edge. The building’s overall plan is a triangle with rounded corners, with a rectangular bar attached on the south. This unusual footprint maximizes use of the site, while the rounded corners reference the industrial history of the area. “The original Austin train depot that was downtown had this kind of cylindrical tower form on it, so we were alluding back to that as something you identify along the railways of Austin,” says Nelsen.
The building contains units ranging from studios to three-bedrooms (550 sf to 1,328 sf, respectively). The one-bedrooms, set back by the terrace, are grouped along the north edge. Studio units line the south with generous singular windows, while the two- and three-bedrooms are at the east and west ends. The project aims to provide affordable housing for both service-sector employees and long-time residents. Three units go for market rate, while the remaining 90 units are reserved for those earning 30-60 percent of the area median income (AMI). Only 22 percent of apartments have more than one bedroom, meaning a significant majority of units cater to non-families. A young resident in a single unit commented that he enjoys the easy access to nearby nightlife.
The housing project utilizes tax credits to offer East Austin sorely needed affordable housing. For units reserved for those whose income falls below 30 percent of the AMI, the rent is less than a third of the market rate; for units reserved for those whose income falls above 30 but below 60 percent, the rent is slightly over half of the market rate. The unit breakdown and the timing of the project, which was completed in 2022, years after consequential property value increases in East Cesar Chavez, reduce the project’s ability to redress the expulsions caused by East Austin’s rapid gentrification; however, the project is part of a vital effort to offer affordable housing in the region, and its shrewdly built amenities exceed that of typical affordable housing.
On the second floor, a small gym and a community room flank the terrace, which provides outdoor seating and a turf slope for children to play on. Residents and nonresidents alike can use the community room, which also contains a children’s area. While perhaps less luxurious than their typical market-rate counterparts, the common spaces are highly functional and well-used by residents. Public spaces are made available for external groups to use for events, such as corporate training or meetings, integrating the project into its existing community.
The building also reaches toward the community on the exterior, encouraging neighbors to engage with it at the ground-level plane. The materiality and approachable scale of the building create a warm entry sequence. The site’s western edge, narrowly wedged between the bikeway and the railroad, contains a pocket dog park. Bikers and pedestrians on the Lance Armstrong Bikeway pass by the building’s native-plant-filled rain garden, which is retained within low walls that incorporate corrugated formwork in dialogue with the texture of the metal cladding. Lauren McGee, a landscape architect at dwg., says that the streetscape was envisioned as “a front porch to the community.”
Community is Talavera Lofts’ focus. The interior features works by local artists, furthering what Daniela Valle, branding and creative lead at Nelsen Partners, refers to as the “local plus local plus local” emphasis.
While its connection with the East Austin community is strong, the project’s links to the past are more complex. At the southwest corner, the ground facade is a custom tile wall in the style of the Mexican ceramics that gave the lofts its name — Talavera. A variety of different motifs create a gradient of heavier to lighter patterns. The tiles allude to the neighborhood’s Latinx and specifically Mexican-American roots, although the visual vernacular used was not historically a part of East Cesar Chavez’s built environment.
The building has an ambitious, if unresolved, relationship to the adjacent site to its east, Plaza Saltillo. Envisioned in the early 1990s by a group of East Austin business leaders as a lively plaza akin to those in many Mexican cities, since 2010 the plaza has mostly served as a station for the Red Line, the only operating route of Austin’s light rail system.
Plaza Saltillo was originally intended as the heart of the community and as an economic engine, but this was before the drastic development and gentrification of the area. “People had hopes that it was going to bring development,” says fourth-generation East Austinite Mack Martinez. “I don’t think they foresaw how it went.” According to Martinez, the “promise of Plaza Saltillo was very different than what was delivered.”
Completed in the late ’90s in partnership with the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the plaza was conceived as a commuter stop as well as a gathering place. However, the vision of the plaza as a place for community never fully materialized. The light rail plan was nixed by voters only two years after the plaza was built, and it would be a decade before the plaza finally became a light rail stop.
By then, the neighborhood — and East Austin in general — had become more popular and expensive, with West Austinites and tourists flocking to the area. Developments in the neighborhood began to create friction alongside the vision of the original East Austin residents.
Talavera Lofts attempts to revive Plaza Saltillo’s intended function as a place of gathering, but references a vastly different cultural and economic context. Its eastern facade has operable panels that lift up to create shaded booths for a farmers-market-esque setup that would overflow to the adjacent plaza. Awkwardly blocking off access, though, is a Capital Metro bike rental shed that disrupts the flow between the neighbors.
Talavera Lofts has had to contend with fraught history not only on its east but also on its west. A mixed-use development directly west of the building, also known as Plaza Saltillo, or simply Saltillo, broke ground in 2017. While earlier plans for the development gained neighborhood support, the final plan and zoning changes were met with opposition. Saltillo occupies six blocks of East 5th Street, from just east of IH-35 to Navasota Street. The development contains a Whole Foods and a Target, as well as other retail spaces, offices, restaurants, and market-rate apartment buildings.
The early stages of planning for Talavera Lofts began on the tail end of the mixed-use development. Nelsen Partners’ Crisara recalled that when the design team began soliciting community feedback, the neighborhood was “reeling with the magnitude of things that were being approved and built.”
Eric Ryan Pace, the chair of the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Plan Contact Team, said that an affordable housing building was a “big win,” since initial promises of affordable units from the mixed-use development weren’t fully realized (its developers opted to pay into Austin’s affordable housing fund to reduce the number of affordable units required by the zoning changes approved for the development).
DMA Companies and Nelsen Partners worked closely with the East Cesar Chavez Contact Team at all stages of the project, gathering the neighborhood support needed to secure tax credits for affordable projects. The Contact Team also provided valuable feedback to the design team, tapping into their experience to advise on acoustic challenges in the area.
Austin’s Affordability Unlocked program, which waives selected code restrictions in exchange for low- to moderate-income housing, was also instrumental in building Talavera Lofts. Crisara referred to the program as a “phenomenal tool” for a project with “deep affordability.” The program and the site’s multimodal access allowed for a reduction in parking spots because residents are theoretically less reliant on their cars, enabling higher density on the constricted site.
Wedged between a plaza intended to host a community mostly driven out by gentrification and a mixed-use development that represents and drives this gentrification, Talavera Lofts has had to contend with a site as physically complex as it is historically fraught. While no building can reconcile the larger forces of rapid economic investment, population influx, and gentrification, Talavera Lofts does exactly what it sought to do: bring carefully designed workforce housing where it is needed.
Maya Shamir is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, where she majored in architecture and minored in history. She is currently a designer at Murray Legge Architecture.