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Fate of Rainey Street coming to decision as Garcia pushes for action

Monday, April 3, 2000 by

Neighbors pushing to sell, although some holding out for preservation

Residents of the Rainey Street Neighborhood, which lies between the city's expanding Convention Center and Town Lake, have come up with a neighborhood plan that would change the area from mostly single-family homes to a mixed-use hub for high-tech companies. Former City Council Member Brigid Shea, who moved with her husband, John Umphress, into the neighborhood in 1995, says, "To me, it's a natural fit. A lot of high-tech companies want to relocate to the downtown area and there's not much land to fill." Shea said the neighborhood could become a focal point for "venture capital firms, emerging companies and more mature companies, plus housing, restaurants, and all the other stuff they need–right on the bank of the river."

On March 5, members of the city's Neighborhood Planning Team distributed 38 ballots to 34 property owners within the Rainey Street historic district. Some owners received multiple ballots because they owned more than one property, according to Sue Karczewski, senior planner. Karczewski said 27 ballots were returned to the Planning, Environmental and Conservation Services Department. Of those, 23 voted for a downtown mixed-use plan being sponsored by Robert Knight and Perry Lorenz, who own several blocks of property on East Avenue, which runs parallel to Rainey Street. Lorenz and Knight have been talking to area property owners for some time about aggregating their properties to sell as a unit to a developer. There was only one vote for a plan put forward by Craig Nasso, an architect who lives in the neighborhood and wants to see the historic district preserved. One person voted for both plans and two were counted as undecided.

Maria Elena Bernhardt, co-chair of the Rainey Street Neighborhood Association, said the group has been meeting and trying to decide what is best for the residents for more than two years. Bernhardt said it became clear to her after the approval of Gordon Dunaway's condominium project last year that it would be best to have the area rezoned Central Business District. "I've been here 24 years," she said. "I've always said let's save the neighborhood." But now, she says, "The neighborhood should join together as a force, where we can get the biggest value for the property. If we stay united, then we will all end up with a better value, versus selling one piece at a time."

Council Member Gus Garcia, who is counting the waning days of his term of office and trying to pass as many milestones as he can on his race to the finish line, has attended Rainey Street meetings. Last week Garcia asked the city manager to arrange a council briefing this week on the redevelopment strategy. He is also sponsoring a council resolution to initiate review of the plan by various city boards and commissions, including the Historic Landmark Commission.

Members of the Austin Heritage Society and the city's Historic Landmark Commission, which advises the City Council on historic preservation issues, have expressed concern about the changes envisioned by the majority of Rainey Street's landowners. They worry that landowners' plans will mean destruction of Rainey Street's historic structures, some of which date back to the late 1800s. In 1985, Rainey Street was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. But most of Rainey Street's homeowners did not participate in the process which brought about that designation, and since some of them do not read English, those in favor of redevelopment point out, many did not even understand the process. "The whole time we've lived here, we haven't found one person who voted for the historic designation," Shea said. "We've been trying to figure out how this could happen if no one was for it."

Julie Morgan, executive director of the Heritage Society said historian Amy Dase is currently updating the historic survey of the neighborhood that was done 15 years ago. Morgan said, "We think preservation of the National Register historic district is an economically viable thing. I don't think Smart Growth has to happen at the expense of the historic district." Shea said, "I don't feel like the Heritage Society is in touch with the realities of the neighborhood."

Joe Regalado, an Austin police officer who grew up on Rainey Street, said he had talked to Nasso after the March 5th neighborhood meeting, and Nasso told him eight people did not want to move. "I said, Craig, I can tell you right now, I don't want to move, but if the price is right–of course we'll move. We're not going to sell it for $30 or $40 a square foot, but $75 or $80 (a square foot). And that's where we all stand." Regalado said he asked members of the Historic Landmark Commission if they were going to give residents money to fix the homes that need renovation. "No, they said, there's no money there (at the commission)."

Regalado said he owns the property and various members of his family have lived there on a rotating basis. However, he and his wife have two young children and live elsewhere. "We wouldn't move there because of the traffic. We have I-35, the IHOP; if you have a collision on I-35, everybody uses the neighborhood as a cut-through," he said. In addition, he said, when there are functions at the Convention Center, people park on Rainey Street. Regalado summed up his position by saying, "I'm for development if we're going to stand to profit. You can't stop growth. We all could profit." And for some elderly neighbors in particular, he said, "This is a chance in a lifetime."

At least one of the older residents, Rudy Zapata, said his family has lived on Rainey Street for four generations. Zapata, 61, said he, his father, his son and his grandson have all lived there. "Rainey Street just became a part of us–or we became a part of it," he said. The neighborhood used to be nicer, with two little grocery stores, he said. "It was a peaceful neighborhood," he said, where kids used to play in the streets. But now the neighborhood has speed bumps, which everyone agrees hardly even slow down the many cars cutting through the neighborhood. Nevertheless, Zapata said, he hopes his son, Raul, who actually owns the Zapata property now, will choose not to sell. " Bobby Velasquez got up there (at the neighborhood meeting) and said, 'I'm tired of these people coming in from the outside, telling us what to do.' Well, I'm tired of people telling me I've got to sell."

Avery Ranch PUD annexation and zoning face no opposition

Developer's attorney Gilmore hopes to finalize on April 13

The City of Austin should be able to better compete for new homebuyers within the city limits if Avery Ranch Planned Unit Development is approved by the Austin City Council, said attorney Henry Gilmore, a sole practitioner representing developer Pebble Creek Joint Venture. On March 30 he told the City Council the 1,629-acre master planned community would provide a public, daily-fee golf course; construct four miles to the Brushy Creek trail system; provide a site for a light-rail station; and build four miles of Avery Ranch Boulevard. The property lies north of RR 620 and is bisected by Parmer Lane; its northern property line runs generally along South Brushy Creek.

Alice Glasco, director of the Development Review and Inspection Department, said Avery Ranch PUD was within the Desired Development Zone and was planned for 1,088 acres of residential including 5,000 homes, 538 multifamily units, and 2.1 million square feet of commercial uses. The golf course and private park will use 281 acres and the greenbelt will take up 116 acres, she said. Gilmore said the housing would be convenient for major employers, including Dell Computer Corp., Motorola Inc. and State Farm Insurance.

To please existing neighbors, developers agreed not to connect roadways with Squaw Valley Lane or Brimstone Lane. Several neighbors appeared before the City Council to recommend approval.

Gilmore said Avery Ranch would be developed with sensitivity to the environment, including building less than allowable impervious cover, installing nine wet ponds, restoring grasslands, and observing setbacks from critical environmental features. The developer also will provide a 2.5-acre civic site for use as a fire station or police substation, provided that after 2,500 homes are built the facility be initiated within two years and be completed within five years. Gilmore said this stipulation was to "discourage land banking" by the city.

Council Member Willie Lewis moved to approve the Avery Ranch PUD but Glasco said no action was required at the time. Gilmore tells In Fact Daily that the vote on zoning was being held in abeyance until third and final reading on annexation of the tract. He said he hopes for the final vote on annexation and PUD zoning on April 13.

Double feature for candidates tonight…The Austin Neighborhoods Council and the Austin Neighborhood Organizations are sponsoring a forum for mayoral and City Council candidates tonight at 6:15 p.m. Monday in the Club Room at the Regency Apartments, 601 West 11th. Candidates can expect lots of questions about the proposed relocation of the city-county Central Booking Facility, since the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association will be hosting the event. Following is the tentative schedule for the event: Place 2: 6:30-7:00 p.m., Mayor: 7:00 -7:30 p.m., Place 5: 7:30-8:00 p.m., and Place 6: 8:00 – 8:30. For more info on this event contact Chris Riley at 476-7600 (work) or 478-1299 (home). Also running 6:30-8:30 p.m. tonight is the candidate forum sponsored by the Mueller Neighborhood Coalition. This one's at the Maplewood Elementary School cafeteria, 1500 block of E. 38-1/2 Street. For more info call Jim Walker at 499-0526.

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