Austin’s Creative Eastside
Flexible live/work spaces offer design and affordability.
By Shelley Seale, Portraits by Evan Prince, Location photos by Stephen Paul Connor.
During the past decade, the new Austin pioneers have flocked to the Eastside, which has become a hotbed of creativity, diversity and entrepreneurship. From longtime favorites such as Nubian Queen Lola’s Cajun Soul Food Café and Rabbit’s Lounge, to the dozens of hip new bars, shops and restaurants that open up faster than one can track, the Eastside scene is ripe for artists, musicians, filmmakers, hyper-current entrepreneurs and other creatives who keep moving east of I-35 in droves.
To accommodate the multitude of new residents, many housing and condominium projects have also sprung up in the past few years, but perhaps none is as sleekly designed, multi-functional, affordable and downright cool as those by Richard deVarga. deVarga has developed East Austin projects such as the Pedernales Lofts and Smith/Works Light Industrial Condos and his most recent, Cobra Studios.
Located off the corner of Bolm and Gardner roads, Cobra’s 24 live/work units were designed as warehouse-style open spaces around an open courtyard space, with a high sustainability factor and just waiting for the stamp of individuality from each resident. The Cobra concept, in fact, came about as a response to the Smith/Works building, which was an adaptive reuse of an old, vacant warehouse.
“Smith/Works was marketed to boutique manufacturers and designers who required tougher spaces with big power,” deVarga says. “These studios were truly light-industrial and not zoned for living.”
But while deVarga was showing the spaces to potential purchasers, many suggested that half the space for half the money would be perfect for their needs, if they could live there as well.
“So the concept was born,” deVarga says. “How do we design and develop affordable, livable warehousetype spaces of 1,000 square feet and sell them for $150,000? And how do we plan a community of these studios and create a sense of place?”
deVarga clearly accomplished just that in the three-year-old community that is home to musicians, filmmakers, photographers, graphic designers, visual artists and writers. Kim Wilks, the first resident of Cobra Studios, says she loves the communal aspect of the property.
“The design around the central courtyard helps bring us together and quickly turns neighbors in to friends, and I love them all,” she says. “I also love the creativity of people who live and work here. It’s sort of a magical place to live.”
Austin Woman talked to deVarga to find out what makes Cobra Studios so magical.
Richard deVarga: I come from the same ranks as many of the people that buy in to my projects. Our desire for quality-built space that is affordable and sustainable is shared. We always try to re-invent spaces by using materials to construct in different ways. We love to investigate and utilize low-tech industrial components; proper planning and orientation is far more important than the latest gadgets or surfaces.
Our goal was to utilize readily available industrial blocks with steel framing to construct the shell. Fully glazed garage doors were added on both ends to completely open the space. Natural daylight is key. The central core was the final addition to create a modest kitchen, bath, mechanical room and closet. Community outdoor areas are essential. The site plan is basically just a circling of the wagons, thus creating a large central courtyard. This grouping allowed every unit to be able to open directly on to the central court and is the organizing factor of the Cobra community.
AW: What kind of vision did you have in mind?
RD: The vision was a community of creative people bound by their interest in architecture and sustainability. If a potential purchaser comes to review the project and immediately understands the buildings and the space between the buildings, they can envision themselves as part of the community. The attraction to the quality of architecture and building placement is essential. Design, community, sustainability and energy efficiency are all extremely important to getting it right. To develop and market to the creative community takes extra considerations since this group is so passionate, intelligent and progressive. They expect a lot for their money. They appreciate good volume, sturdy construction and useable outdoor community spaces.
AW: How did you decide on the location and land space?
RD: I have now been working primarily in Central East Austin for over 10 years. When we started the initial design work in 2002 for The Pedernales Lofts, we were the first and only mixed-use community being developed. As a result, I have now spent a lot of time in the area and have become familiar with the many neighborhoods. One of my favorite pockets is around Govalle Park near Boggy Creek. It is an extremely fertile area with great soils and huge trees. This area was choice for the early pioneers and originally settled by Swedish immigrant farmers; a perfect spot for the modern pioneer with an industrial edge.
AW: What challenges did the economic and real-estate downturn create?
RD: In 2008, we had reservations on every unit prior to construction. All of our potential buyers were prequalified and ready to go. Everything changed quickly in 2009–2010. The primary and secondary lending markets froze. FHA radically adjusted their requirements on condominium financing. Most buyers no longer met lending guidelines. We had to sell almost 20 of the 24 condominiums two or three times. Everyone was frustrated. The sad part is that most of our first buyers, who were so excited about the project and supportive of the Cobra concept, were not able to purchase their studios due to forces beyond their control. The issue was national. Kiki, my wife and partner, dug her heels in and fought for every closing. It was tough for everyone, but we eventually made it through.
AW: What are your thoughts on the community that has been created at Cobra?
RD: It has evolved in to a very interesting group made up of photographers, filmmakers, designers, writers, musicians, academics, visual artists and stylists. We are totally blown away by the quality of the community. Most of the Cobra people are now friends and call to discuss ideas, invite us to happenings and many times to just hang. We love going by to visit and try to support the community as much as possible.
RD: We are very excited about our new project, thinkEAST. It will be located right around the corner from the Cobra on 25 acres we recently purchased. This site is bordered by Govalle Park and will have a direct connection to the new Southern Walnut Creek Hike and Bike Trail that will eventually link the Lance Armstrong Bikeway and the Eastern Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike Trail. thinkEAST is a culmination of all of my prior projects master planned as a district hub. The goal is to be near the action, affordably as possible. What if we can make a district in an established underserved community that provides education, jobs, retail and services, a variety of living options that is anchored by a common interest in thinking creatively, making with your hands and minds, contributing to social issues, maintaining diversity and culture? That is the challenge of thinkEAST Austin, a mixed-use campus of cultural industries and ideas set in a verdant park-like setting.
Kim Wilks, Graphic Designer
Kim Wilks and her Chihuahua, Mouse, were the first residents of Cobra in 2009. She was introduced to deVarga through a friend and was immediately drawn to the layout and plans. “I love that Cobra was built on a trash-filled, completely vacant lot and truly improved the neighborhood without displacing anyone or tearing down existing homes,” she says. “I love the stripped-down industrial feel of the space and was surprised at how homey it still felt to live here. I also love that it is affordable … otherwise I wouldn’t be able to live here. The other residents truly make this a special place to live. Everyone I know at Cobra is so interesting and talented. And, of course, I love the dog park.”
Alyssa Taylor Wendt bought the second-to-last unit at Cobra in 2010 when she relocated from Brooklyn, NY. “The allure of Cobra played a large part in that decision,” she says of her move from New York. “I immediately saw the potential for a productive creative community that was affordable, aesthetically modern yet minimal and full of like-minded people who recognize the autonomy and affordability of the far Eastside.” The large ceilings and focused atmosphere provide the ideal space to develop her installation art projects, and she adds that her dogs love it too. “Prince and Mercy are obsessed with Cobra,” she says. “They would never stand for giving up the freedom of the courtyard for leash walks and the winters of Brooklyn again! I would never be able to construct this type of setup in New York.”
Seth Houdeshell, Psychotherapist
Seth Houdeshell found Cobra while riding his bike and was intrigued by the modern structure in a place he wasn’t expecting. “The biggest appeal to me was the large glass garage doors that can be opened on both sides of the unit. I always wanted to be able to open up an entire wall to the outside. You can close your door and feel complete privacy, or you can go out in the courtyard and hang out with people,” he says. As a surfer and member of Surfrider Foundation, he connected with deVarga, who is also a surfer, and the two have even taken a surfing trip to Nicaragua together. And although Houdeshell says his schedule doesn’t allow him to have his own pets, he loves the dog residents of Cobra and can often be found in the courtyard playing with them.
Sydney Rubin, Writer and Communications Consultant
As a non-resident owner, Sydney Rubin purchased her studio to rent in the short term with a future plan to live in it. “Although I now divide my time between South Austin and Southern France, I can foresee a time in perhaps 10 to 12 years when I’ll want a turnkey, lock-and-leave home that is stylish but requires minimal work or investment,” Rubin says. “I bought a unit at Cobra as part of a creative approach to aging. I see it as a model for the kind of housing we’ll need for aging baby boomers with reduced resources and the desire to live independently. Cobra’s size and infrastructure allows for privacy yet provides community, and it offers a mix of ages.”
Keith Kreeger, Designer/Maker and Studio Potter
Keith Kreeger rents his unit for his ceramics studio, Kreeger Pottery. “It wasn’t difficult to envision using this space for my studio. I loved the open layout and industrial look,” he says. “As an artist, I already knew quite a few people in town and, obviously, working within the vibrant community of the Eastside was a big draw of working at Cobra.” Kreeger finds Cobra Studios’ involvement in initiatives such as the East Austin Studio Tour provides a great way to connect. “I love that during E.A.S.T., everything is opened up and the creativity of all of Cobra is on display,” he says. “I think it’s a great model of the fact that a city like Austin has a wonderful creative class and that it goes across mediums, disciplines and jobs. Cobra was a great find for me.”
The announcement of thinkEAST, Richard deVarga’s upcoming development of live/ work studios and apartments in one of Austin’s largest remaining undeveloped urban tracts, has created a big buzz. Coupled with East Austin’s recent ranking as seventh on Forbes’ list of the best hipster neighborhoods in the country, the area’s reputation as the creative hub of the city has been granted even more street cred.
Located in a park-like setting near the city’s new East Seventh Gateway Corridor, which directly connects to a multitude of parks and trails, thinkEAST is a 24-acre “creative district” that will offer affordable and flexible working, living and studio spaces for a wide range of Austin’s creative industries, including technology, design, music, film, fashion, gaming and visual arts. thinkEAST will use sustainable modern architecture to stimulate job growth and diversity in East Austin’s economy, culture and community.
Austin attorney and arts advocate Robert Summers was instrumental in bringing this project to life. deVarga’s most recent project, Cobra Studios, was a finalist for the Austin Business Journal’s 2012 Commercial Real Estate Awards, while his Travis Heights Freedom House was voted Best New Architecture in 2000 by the Austin Chronicle. deVarga says affordability has become a rising concern in East Austin.
“The concern among both newcomers and old-timers is gentrification,” he says. “Newcomers are attracted to the diversity and the existing culture, and do not want to be the cause of displacement. Affordability is a big, big goal. We are attempting to make it affordable by East Austin standards to try to maintain the local fabric that attracted us to this area in the first place.”
thinkEAST could provide up to 150 rental and ownership units affordable to those earning 30 to 80 percent of Austin’s median family income, and the Guadalupe Neighborhood Development Corporation will ensure that the housing will be available to neighborhood residents as well as creatives.
“Any time the private sector looks to become a part of an established community and meet an ever-increasing need, such as deep levels of affordability, I will do what I can to assist making it the best possible project for everyone involved,” says City Councilman Mike Martinez, who works with deVarga on the project.