The Otto may not be the biggest renovation along East Cesar Chavez Street, but DeLea Becker of Beck-Reit Commercial Real Estate has poured a huge part of her heart and soul into the project.

How do you best honor the property’s history and contribute to the stability and well-being of the neighborhood? At the same time, how do you create a healthy return on investment and a source of pride for local owners Hartford Properties?

It’s been more than two years since Becker accepted the assignment — to renovate, reposition and lease the commercial building at 1201 E. Cesar Chavez St. — from Hartford Property, an Austin family investment company with deep local roots.

Here’s a preview of the exterior at 1201 E. Cesar Chavez St. when the project is finished in the next few months.

Beginning in the 1920s — yes, almost 100 years ago — Otto Buaas, the family patriarch began buying properties across Austin. Over time other family members have been involved in the management of the family investments.

Handling daily renovation operations is Bill Hamilton, a local CPAand nephew of Betty Buaas, Otto’s daughter-in-law, who enjoyed many blessed wedded years to Howard, Otto’s son. Today, her sons Jim Buaas and John Buaas are also involved. Preserving a family legacy made this project particularly appealing for Beck-Reit.

“Otto Buaas bought the property in the 1920s and the family still owns properties on Cesar Chavez, South Congress and on Sixth Street. They go back generations,” Becker said. “I was initially hired to determine the entitlements for this property.”

Most recently the property (circa 1909) was partially occupied by a cycle shop, but mostly it’s been vacant and in need of major structural and foundational repairs. When completed in the next few months, The Otto will include retail and office space and two apartments — about 10,044 square feet on two floors — and four parking spaces.

Here is how the storefront had looked previously when it housed a bicycle shop. The location is great at the southeast corner of Cesar Chavez and Waller streets.

Several developers had approached Hamilton and Buaas, motivated in part by the premium location — just three blocks east of I-35 in Austin’s most texturally diverse neighborhood. One wanted to level the property and build micro-units — but nearby residents shuddered at the idea of vertical development. Other potential partners floated ideas that would have required significant additional parking under today’s city codes.

Becker, having learned the ins and outs of East Austin development as a pioneering investor and developer in the area, eventually surfaced on Bill Hamilton’s radar screen. He was ready for someone like Becker — an expert at deciphering the city’s antiquated zoning regulations and numerous overlay districts — to oversee the project and build it.

Becker co-owns and operates construction company Beck-Reit & Sons Ltd. with husband Russ Becker. Having immediate access to the general contractor is the best guarantee for delivering a project as designed, on time and on budget.

Even with these advantages, surprising circumstances pushed Becker to the furthest frontiers of her own creative thinking.

“The west wall is two feet into the city of Austin’s right of way. Back in 1909 they’d do that kind of thing. All these buildings along the street are encroaching city property, so what do you do?” Becker said.

Anyone would be tempted to ignore it and hope the city didn’t discover this conundrum dating back more than 100 years. Without a doubt it would be a hassle to address, and the cost to fix might be exorbitant.

“Bill and I agreed that we’d go right to the city and tell them,” Becker said.

The wisdom of their pledge to honesty would be put to the test. Encroachment was a small problem compared to what arose in clear view.  A utility pole situated between the west wall and the curb would have to be relocated as part of any renovation plan to ensure that the public sidewalk was ADA (American with Disabilities Act) compliant.

Hopefully Austin Energy owned the pole, and since the utility provider is city-owned, could be easily engaged in a resolution. But no.

AT&T Inc. owns the pole.

“The city can’t force AT&T to move the pole. The first thing AT&T said when I called was that we’d have to pay $500 just to have a conversation,” Becker said.

Since that conversation two years ago, Becker has had to negotiate the concerns and objections, not only from AT&T, but 11 city departments and utility providers. Resolving the pole problem alone cost $37,000. The formalized encroachment resolution agreement with the city took 18 months to craft.

Everything required approvals by the Planning Commission and City Council.

“Redeveloping in Austin is really hard,” Becker said. “You don’t know what will crop up. You just put one foot in front of the other and take the next step.”

She has learned to accept and prepare clients for situations that don’t seem fair.

“We were forced to fix that problem even though it had nothing to do with the building,” Becker said.

It’s those kinds of costly issues that both commercial and residential property owners face daily if they need a building permit from the city. In the face of one unexpected setback after another, Becker has become more determined, more creative and more streetwise to serve her clients.

Kudos are in order, she said, for architect Denise Shaw of Plumb Architecture, whose design maximizes every inch of the property in a practical and appealing manner.

“We did our best to formulate a floorplan that will be relevant for the next 50 years,” Becker said. “Those two (second floor) apartments really bring a cool factor to this little mixed-use project.”

The first floor commercial spaces also include access to showers in addition to regular bathrooms. The Otto is scheduled to be complete in March, and Beck-Reit will then handle property management.

The company is currently vetting five to 10 tenant inquires a week. Becker is heading that initiative, as well, with an assist from Jeremy Avera. For additional leasing information or to take a tour, contact Becker (DeLea@BeckReit.com) or Avera (jeremy@BeckReitCRE.com).

Here are some more details about The Otto team:

  • Project Manager – DeLea Becker, Beck-Reit Commercial

  • Architect – Denise Shaw, Plumb Architecture

  • Civil Engineer — Jeff Shindler, Texas Design Interest

  • Structural Engineer — Samuel Young, MJ STRUCTURES

  • MEP Engineer — Steven Butler and Melissa Coad, DBR Engineering Consultants

  • Permit Expediter — Marla Busa, Delta Permitting

  • General Contractor—Beck-Reit & Sons Ltd.

Authored by Jan Buchholz of ATX Real Estate News