It has been more than eight years since the City of Austin bought a 20-acre property near the intersection of I-35 and St. Johns Avenue. The space used to house a Home Depot store. Today, the building sits vacant.
Its parking lot full of discarded metal poles, old traffic lights and hundreds of green plastic compost bins waiting to be delivered to residents’ homes.
“We just need to repurpose what this space can represent,” says B.J. Taylor, a resident of the St. John neighborhood since the 1990s.
Taylor says the empty building tends to attract rodents, which have been a nuisance for residents. She and her neighbor, Julie Weeks, have a specific vision in mind for the future of the old Home Depot: an indoor swimming pool.
“A lot of kids in our neighborhood don’t know how to swim,” says Weeks, president of the St. John Neighborhood Association. “We feel like that’s a life skill that kids need to grow up and know how to do, and so one of the things that we’re hoping is that here with the Home Depot facility, this parcel of property, that an indoor swim facility could be constructed by the City of Austin.”
For years, the neighborhood association has called for more parks and recreational spaces in the area. In 2010, the swimming pool at the St. John Park next to the Home Depot was shut down for “structural code violations.” Today, the park is made up of an empty pool, an open field and not much else.
“We’re eager to have the city help us to expand the area of the park, including the green space behind the old Home Depot," Weeks says, "but again, to have access to a swim facility right here would give huge opportunity for families that live in this area.”
The city also owns a former car dealership next door. In total, that's about 20 acres of prime real estate along the I-35 frontage road. Years ago, there was talk of converting the space into a municipal court or a police substation, but the plans didn’t pan out.
After years of waiting, the city finally has an update.
“We’re going to work to put a resolution in front of the City Council in December to ask that the city manager put forward a new process, a community-envisioning process, for what we can do at that site,” says Austin City Council Member Greg Casar.
Casar represents Council District 4, which includes the old Home Depot property. He says the city has dragged its feet on taking action since it bought the land.
“We can’t just leave it sitting there right now, essentially gathering dust and mold and holding city trash cans,” he says. “That’s not respectful to that community. It’s not the right thing for us to do.”
Before the city can move forward with redevelopment, Casar says, it’s likely that the old building will need to be torn down.
“My understanding is that that Home Depot is not fit for habitation or use, so just rehabilitating that Home Depot is not a viable option,” he says. “With that realization comes the opportunity for us to do something else.”
Whatever goes up on the site, Casar says it’s important to respect the history of the neighborhood.
The St. John area dates back to the late 1800s, when the St. John Regular Baptist District Association bought more than 300 acres of land there. The group of African-American religious leaders opened a school and an orphanage. Then came the Great Depression. The association decided to divide the land into individual plots and sold them to families who needed a place to build their homes.
“It was a place where African-Americans who were mostly sharecroppers and farmers, they actually could own property that was theirs,” say the Rev. Daryl Horton with the Mount Zion Baptist Church on East 13th Street. Mount Zion is one of many churches that is part of the St. John Regular Baptist District Association today.
“There are not a lot of people who understand that, again, since the 1930s, there were original plots that were purchased there by African-Americans, and some of those families are still living there today,” he says.
Horton says the conversation about historically black spaces in Austin often turns to the city’s East Side. During segregation, Austin’s 1928 Master Plan relegated black and brown residents to the area east of I-35.
Much of the St. John neighborhood is east of the highway, but Horton says its historical significance tends to fly under the radar. He says there are ways for the city to redevelop the old Home Depot to serve St. John residents while respecting the neighborhood’s history.
“I think you just have to find out what the needs are," Horton says, "but then also make sure that whatever goes up, that [there is] the recognition of what used to be there."
He says that could mean naming a future building or a park after one of the neighborhood’s founding figures. Whatever the future holds, residents like B.J. Taylor are just happy that things are moving forward.
“It’s important,” Taylor says. “If you have roots, and you want to dig in and have some more roots and be proud of where you are, then you do something. You don’t do nothing.”