The announcement of thinkEAST, a new 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 7th 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.
"That is the challenge of thinkEAST Austin: a mixed use campus of cultural industries and ideas set in a verdant park-like setting.” - Richard deVarga
“thinkEAST is a culmination of all of my prior projects master-planned as a district hub,” says developer Richard deVarga, who also designed and developed the Pedernales Lofts and Cobra Studios.
“What if we can make a district in an established under-served community that provides education, jobs, retail and services with a variety of living options, 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.”
DeVarga admits that affordability has become a rising concern in East Austin. “The goal is to be near the action, affordably as possible. The concern among both newcomers and old timers is gentrification. 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.”
Austin attorney and arts advocate Robert Summers was also instrumental in bringing this project to life. DeVarga’s most recent project, Cobra Studios, was a finalist for the 2012 Austin Business Journals Commercial Real Estate Awards, while his Travis Heights Freedom House was voted “Best New Architecture” in 2000 by the Austin Chronicle.
"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.” - deVarga
Kim Wilks, the first resident of Cobra Studios, loves the communal aspect of the property. “The design around the central courtyard helps bring us together and quickly turns neighbors into friends — and I love them all. I also love the creativity of people who live and work here. It’s sort of a magical place to live.”
Multimedia artist Alyssa Taylor Wendt bought the second-to-last of 24 units at Cobra. “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 East Side,” Wendt says. The large ceilings and focused atmosphere provides the ideal space to develop her installation art projects.
“To develop and market to the creative community takes extra consideration since this group is so passionate, intelligent and progressive,” deVarga explains. “They expect a lot for their money. They appreciate good volume, sturdy construction and useable outdoor community spaces.”
To that end, he and his team focus more on proper planning and orientation that the latest gadgets or surfaces.
“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. Natural daylight is key. Community outdoor areas are essential. And the right marketing voice to the community is the edge.”
The recently released 2012 Economic Impact Report revealed that that the creative sector in Austin accounted for over $4.35 billion in Austin's economic activity in 2010— an increase of about one-third from 2005.
thinkEAST could provide up to 150 or more 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.
City Council Member Mike Martinez, who works with deVarga on the project, says, "Anytime the private sector looks to become a part of an estaablished 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."