Property ownership can be a stealth business, with land changing hands before anyone even has time to notice.
For the past four years, one North Texas company has quietly bought up property on East 12th Street. Ironically, the company takes its name from a cry of surprise and discovery: Eureka!
One-fourth of what was once a thriving business corridor for Austin’s African-American community is now owned by Eureka Holdings, a company based in Grapevine, outside Dallas.
“Of course I was suspicious,” said Natasha Madison, a member of the East 12th Street Merchants Association. Madison discovered the land grab when she was researching property ownership in the area. “I’m a pretty sunny, optimistic kind of person, but I did find myself wondering what was the plan.”
Between 2013 and 2016, Eureka bought 36 properties on East 12th Street between I-35 and Walnut Avenue, according to Travis County property records. The property value of these three-dozen lots totals nearly $16 million. The company also owns at least a half dozen more properties on adjacent streets.
Eureka holds the properties under different legal names, a practice not uncommon and used to capitalize on a tax benefit or to shield a company from unwanted attention. And its legal name game is often playful.
For example, 2211 East 12th St. is owned by 2015 Beefy Gold Bullion LP. 2101 East 12th St. is listed under the name Country Nelly CR LP. (Rapper Nelly released his debut album “Country Grammar” in 2000).
1500 East 12th St., which a church leases from Eureka, is owned by Sodosopa Salmon LP. Ironically, that legal name is a reference to a South Park episode, where SoDoSoPa (South Downtown South Park) is short for a newly gentrifying part of town.
The company doesn’t shy away from noting its ability to creatively christen a property.
“All our properties have different legal names,” Vice President Stephen Gibson said in an email. “We get creative sometimes. For a while we used all animal names — like Aardvark Park, for example.” 2510 East 12th St. is listed under 2016 Beaver Gardens LP.
“In another case for a property on Sol Wilson we called the LP Castaway after Wilson the volleyball in the movie,” Gibson wrote.
As for Eureka’s properties, some are rental houses, others businesses – including a barber’s shop and a nonprofit. A handful of the properties are vacant lots.
Raymond Medearis, 70, grew up in the home on 913 East 12th St. By the time he was ready to sell, it had been demolished and was only a vacant lot. A Eureka employee called him and invited him for drinks.
“We had a couple of beers, and he told me [before the property was] even listed, he’d just pay me whatever I wanted for it,” said Medearis, who said the company paid him $430,000 for the empty lot on the corner of East 12th and Curve streets.
Gibson said in an email that there was "no specific plan at this time" for the properties on East 12th. As for buying up more property on the street, he said, “If the opportunity comes along to add to our holdings, we’ll consider it.”
Austin Revitalization Authority President Greg Smith said he believes there will be more deals.
“I’ve talked to some folks that know them and recognize what they’re doing,” he said. “They’re purchasing as much as they can.”
As for when Eureka will begin development, the company won’t say.
James Rolston has lived in a home now owned by Eureka on East 12th since 2009. When he answered the door Wednesday morning, he said he had just renewed his lease for another year. He had no idea what the company’s plans might be.
Whatever its plans, Madison said she hopes Eureka considers the wishes of locals like her and the members of the merchants association. She said she’d like to see an East 12th Street where people can shop for groceries, get a haircut or maybe see a movie – a self-sustaining community, like the one that used to exist.
“African-Americans weren’t welcome outside of that community so we did everything we needed to do within the confines of that community out of necessity,” she said. “People in the district they ate there, they went to school there, they shopped there, they buried their dead there. Everything we did we did within this community.”
She and members of the merchants association have met with Eureka; Madison described the meetings as “amicable,” but no plans were divulged. Council Member Ora Houston’s office confirmed that a representative of Eureka met with her to discuss its purchase of the properties. She asked "if they had any plans for the properties to which they said no.”
While Madison is hopeful the company will consider the community’s needs, she is also realistic.
“Real estate development is big money, big business,” she said. “And it is what it is. And at the end of the day what it’s about is being able to show ROI [return on investment] on a spreadsheet. And that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is altruism. What I’m talking about is compassion. … And some of that will mean that in an opportunity to take the money or provide for the community, you have to provide for the community.”