Amid Barton Springs Road Development, Last Trailer Park Survives
By Kelsey Jukam
For Reporting Texas
As Austin has grown and changed in the past few years, so has the stretch of Barton Springs Road between South Lamar Boulevard and Zilker Park. New restaurants, including a microbrewery, have moved in to the popular restaurant row, as well as condominium and apartment developments. Amid this changing landscape, however, is a relic of Austin’s past: the Pecan Grove RV Park.
“It’s a cultural icon,” said resident Jay Thomas of Pecan Grove, which dates back to the 1940s. “It’s the last beacon of a time almost forgotten in Austin.”
Pecan Grove is where actor Matthew McConaughey once kept his Airstream trailer, although residents say he wasn’t actually around much. Word around the park also says that the owner is the family of a Saudi billionaire who attended the University of Texas, and that’s why Pecan Grove survives while other RV parks on the road have been sold for development.
“I have heard anecdotally that the owners aren’t in any hurry to sell because they have plenty of money,” Thomas said. “But I’ve never met or talked to owners personally; I just have stories.”
Thomas’ parents rented a spot in the park for a few years to have a place to stay when they drove in from Bastrop. A few other people also rent spaces to have a vacation pad in the city. When his parents moved to Austin and bought a house, Thomas, who works for the Texas Solar Power Co., decided to take over the RV and the space. He was lured by the park’s central location and cheap rent.
“You never know how long it’s going to be here, so I figured I might as well take advantage of it while it was here,” Thomas said.
There were once three RV parks on Barton Springs. But the Shady Grove park — not to be confused with the restaurant -– was sold to condominium developers in 2008, and Mobile Manor followed last summer.
Most of the 93 spots at Pecan Grove are rented by permanent residents, many who’ve lived there for years. Many of the sites boast elaborate gardens. One RV’s entranceway is an arched trellis, covered in ivy.
Jim Dickson, a professional balloon twister, put 350,000 miles on his last RV, traveling from Key West to off the coast of Washington state. He says no other RV park in the country can compare to Pecan Grove, where he frequently stopped during his travels. When he decided to leave New Orleans after Hurricane Ivan in 2004, he knew he wanted to go to the grove.
Dickson calls Pecan Grove “a real neighborhood … the old-fashioned kind,” where neighbors really know and help each other. Two years ago, he broke his leg in a motorcycle accident. His neighbors came to the rescue, cooking, cleaning and walking his two dogs.
“Without this community I would have ended up in a VA facility,” Dickson said. “I would have lost my trailer, my dogs, but everyone here pitched in. I was just blown away.”
Michael Corcoran, a music writer who has maintained a residence at Pecan Grove for almost eight years, said the park is like a gated community, where residents are expected to keep their spaces in good condition, hold down the noise and pick up after their dogs.
Not everyone appreciated the attention that McConaughey attracted. “When he was here there would be tourists that would drive by,” Corcoran said. “But everybody is kind of edgy here; they really don’t like any notoriety.”
For $400 a month, RVers can live in a neighborhood where rents on many one-bedroom apartments are twice that. Many residents are retired or on a disability; most are on a fixed income and would be hard-pressed to find another living situation in town, said Dickson.
“Just the way Austin is now, in East Austin, where there are black families that have to move, it’s going to be pretty much upper-middle-class white people living in the whole town,” Corcoran said. “But I think that this park is like a feather in Austin’s cap. I think the city will stay out of its way.”
The park is owned by Limestone Rost Properties, an Austin limited partnership with no listed phone number. Two years ago, the registered agent for the partnership was changed to Pecan Grove Texas Property Management Co., run by Ibrahim Al-Rashid, Salman Al-Rashid, and Mohammad Al-Rashid, according to Texas corporation and Travis County property records. Residents speculate they are relatives, possibly sons, of the man they say owns the park, Nasser Ibrahim Al-Rashid.
The elder Al-Rashid is worth $8 billion and is an adviser to the Saudi royal court, according to Arabian Business’ 2009 list of the richest Saudis. He earned two degrees from from UT and has donated millions to universities and hospitals in Texas and elsewhere. At UT, there’s even a building named after him.
“The guy who owns Pecan Grove is Saudi Arabian billionaire,” Corcoran said. “We all feel that living here with him as the owner he’s not going to be thinking, ‘if I sell that, oh wow, I could get $10 million.’ But who knows what’s going to happen with his offspring.”
The family keeps a low profile, so little is known about why they would want to own a trailer park near downtown Austin. Some residents speculate that the elder Al-Rashid might simply have a soft spot for the place.
“If you spend any time here you realize that you are in a special place,” said Dickson. “We have a great canopy, you can’t hear the traffic, we’re 10 degrees cooler in the summer.”
He says the towering old pecans which make the natural canopy also seem to absorb stress.
Dickson and Thomas worry about the future of the trees as much as about the future of the park.
“They’re destroying the heart of Austin,” Dickson said. “This pecan grove was here before any of these people were here. It should be respected.”
But residents are hopeful that the park will survive. It is, after all, just the kind of place that helps to keep Austin weird.
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