Article provided by: The Austin Business Journal
Behind the stone walls at 614 Blanco St. a development story has quietly been unfolding.
James Schoenbaum spent the past three years buying a 1.3-acre lot and navigating the challenging development process, considering the project is in an historic neighborhood populated by residents determined to maintain the area’s unique charm.
“It was pretty complicated,” Schoenbaum said. “We sat down with the city. We sat down with the Castle Hill Historic District. We sat down with the neighbors.”
Now that he’s within a couple of months of breaking ground on the luxury housing project, Schoenbaum said it’s all been worth it.
Dubbed “The Stonewall” for the antiquated walls that once guarded an old Austin mansion, the infill development includes 11 units — all duplexes except one detached residence, all priced above $1.4 million.
Even though the project won’t deliver until summer 2017, all but two units have been reserved.
“People have been so receptive and I’ve got to give credit to all the people who have been around me,” Schoenbaum said.
This is the first development for Schoenbaum, who is 31. In fact it’s his first real estate project.
A handshake deal
A former tech entrepreneur, Schoenbaum changed his career course about three years ago. He felt drawn to the tangibility of real estate and began driving up and down streets in search of something that captured his attention.
He noticed a broad patch of land in the quaint neighborhood west of Lamar Boulevard. After some research, Schoenbaum located the California investor, who purchased the property years ago from a lender during the 1990s recession.
The history was intriguing. In 1895 an estate with a circle drive was built on the property. At some point, what was known as the Armstrong-Odem House burned down and was never replaced.
The out-of-state buyer purchased the property when his son attended the University of Texas. He always intended to development something, but never did. Schoenbaum then flew to California to meet with the owner, who primarily spoke Chinese.
“We met at a Mexican restaurant and he brought a translator,” Schoenbaum said. “He indicated he was amenable to talking about price but he was an old school guy who only wanted to do a deal over a handshake.”
The owner’s insistence that there would be no purchase agreement was stressful, but the deal closed in July 2013.
Schoenbaum breathed a sigh of relief and began assembling a team, starting with Stephanie Panozzo, a broker with Gottesman Residential Real Estate.
“Steph helped my cousin buy her first house and it was such a good experience that I just knew,” Schoenbaum said.
Panozzo also specializes in representing developers with new residential projects in Central Austin.
Another pivotal decision was hiring Aaron Webb, a veteran construction project manager.
“There’s no way I would have gotten any momentum on this project without him. He brings a whole Rolodex to the table,” Schoenbaum said.
Site development mishaps
Even with a dream team of sorts, the road was long with many a winding turns. Plans were drawn and approved by city departments and neighborhood districts.
The Historic Landmark Commission had signed off on the project and then Schoenbaum learned there was some kind of misunderstanding within the site development process. The setbacks and height were not compatible with regulations.
“We spent a year on it and then had to completely throw it away,” he said.
The design team tried to advance the project by seeking variances with the city’s Board of Adjustment. That failed in June 2015.
“We had to pull ourselves off the floor,” Schoenbaum recalled.
The only other option was to amend the historic district requirements, “and there was no process to do that,” he said.
Schoenbaum engaged another heavyweight to handle all the approvals and legalities — attorney Richard Suttle with Armbrust & Brown PLLC.
“He gets things done,” Schoenbaum said.
Still, it was a bit hairy. The Planning Commission was split about the amendment to the Castle Hill Historic District, but City Council finally gave its blessing in October 2015. To receive the necessary approvals, Schoenbaum removed one unit from the original dozen proposed.
“And here we are,” he said. “We just got our site development permit last week and that was a big hurdle.”
Austin-based Sabre Commercial, which has won several awards for recent projects, will begin construction in May.
“These are luxury homes so we have to know the craftsmen are capable,” Schoenbaum said.
Panozzo said Schoenbaum’s commitment to the neighbors ultimately paved the way.
“I think they see how much he cares,” she said.