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Cap Metro taps Roma for planning contract

Thursday, July 31, 2003 by

Some East Austin activists still worried about gentrification

As expected, the Capital Metro Board of Directors voted unanimously Wednesday to award to Roma Design Group of San Francisco the master-planning contract for redevelopment of the Saltillo District of East Austin. The contract is for $298,200 and is funded by an interlocal agreement between the City of Austin and Capital Metro.

Although there appeared to be no animosity toward Roma—a well-known and trusted name among planners and neighborhoods—some members of the community were still not happy that the project was moving forward without safeguards against gentrification. Longtime activist Paul Hernandez of El Concilio told the board that awarding the contract would lead to the displacement of longtime Mexican-American residents, many of whom are elderly and poor. The contract would serve as a signal for a rash of speculators to buy up precious homesteads, he said, adding that speculation in the area had already started.

“We were under the impression there would be safeguards . . . that we will not be displaced.” Hernandez has pushed for a state law that would allow the city to freeze property taxes for longtime residents. However, he said, the City Council has declined to push for such legislation. Without such a law, he said, speculation “will run rampant . . . You’re going to be destroying this community and the people who live in this community . . . First and foremost . . . you owe a duty to the residents of East Austin.”

But Cathy Vasquez, owner of La Prensa, and Susana Almanza of PODER (People Organized in Defense of the Earth and her Resources), who served on the community group that helped pick Roma from a list of eight applicants, both said they had confidence that the team would be helpful in retarding the gentrification that Hernandez and other El Concilio members say they fear.

Almanza said her group had been pleased by the process. She praised Capital Metro for Roma allowing community members to be involved in the selection process from the beginning. The Saltillo District process sets a precedent, she said. “We’re looking at this particular case as a model.”

Almanza also said that Roma had “brought to us many of the tools,” to reduce the chances of gentrification in the redevelopment area. She expressed confidence in their ability “to make sure this (gentrification) doesn’t happen.”

The board also appointed five of nine members of a community advisory group that will assist in providing input to the planners as well as to the financial backers of the project, Capital Metro and the City of Austin. They appointed Almanza of PODER, Ray Ramirez of Con Ganas, local business owner Vasquez, Lori Renteria of the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Planning Team and bicycling advocate Eric Anderson, a resident of the Holly Street Neighborhood. The City Council will likely make four more appointments next week, according to Council Member Daryl Slusher, a member of the Capital Metro board.

Slusher told the board the Council would like more flexibility in naming members than had been suggested by transit authority staff. Slusher said the city would like to be able to appoint two at-large members, one business owner and one developer or development-related member. The city had been assigned a developer, a financial person, a community/neighborhood representative and an urban designer. Slusher said no one connected with a financial institution had even applied for a position and that he would like to appoint State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, who had applied.

The redevelopment of the Saltillo District—approximately 11 acres, east of IH-35, between 4th and 6th Streets—has been through continuing controversy. But yesterday it seemed that most of that controversy had been put to rest. Capital Metro purchased the land with federal funding in 1987 in order to develop a transportation corridor. Potential land uses include not only various transportation services, but also housing, parks and small locally-owned businesses.

Historic zoning case causes ZAP clash The Zoning and Platting Commission rejected the application for historic zoning on a home in the Pemberton Heights neighborhood during an emotionally charged special called meeting Tuesday night. The original vote on the historic designation was postponed at the request of Commissioner John Michael Cortez when Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky was unable to attend last week’s meeting due to an illness.

Sadowsky was at Tuesday night’s meeting, making the case for the historic value of the home once owned by DeWitt Greer, the former chief officer of the Texas Highway Department (now the Texas Department of Transportation). The case for the house at 2508 Jarratt Avenue was instigated by the staff when the new owner, Jim Johnson, filed for a demolition permit. “The Texas Highway Department, under Mr. Greer, began its most ambitious road-building program,” said Sadowsky. “Mr. Greer was fond of saying that he brought Texas motorists out of the mud.” In addition, the house was designed by noted Austin architect Hugo Kuehne and lies within the boundaries of the proposed Old West Austin National Register Historic District. The Historic Landmark Commission had supported historic designation in a split vote that led to the resignation of one of the commission’s members. (See In Fact Daily, June 4, 2003.) Overall, Sadowsky said, the home met eight of the criteria for historic designation.

Homeowner Jim Johnson, who was visibly distraught during his presentation, told commissioners his family of five, soon to be six, could not live in the existing 1937 structure and renovations would be economically unfeasible. “I think it’s absurd to call that house a historic landmark,” he said. “It’s a nice house. It would serve for some families. There are eight historic landmarks within the Old West Austin Historic District . . . there are 2500 houses there. I think it’s an abuse of the process for people to claim that’s an historic landmark, and I don’t think it’s in the class of the Pease Mansion and the other historic landmarks in the district.”

While several neighbors showed up to support Johnson, other residents voiced their opposition to destroying the home. “We have seen a rash of demolitions,” said Susan Pascoe. “One of the reasons many of us live in Central Austin is because of the character of the neighborhoods. And every house that is torn down and rebuilt with something that doesn’t match truly changes the character of the neighborhood.”

The case evoked strong feelings on both sides. Commissioner Keith Jackson argued that the homeowner had been treated unfairly during the city’s move to declare the home historic after he had purchased it and secured financing for reconstruction. “I truly appreciate historic housing and am a proponent of preservation,” he said. “But I think it has to be done in the vein of fairness and . . . pre-notice, so that somebody doesn’t get blindsided by this . . . that they don’t buy a property and then find out that they’ve got a problem with it. I think there should be some process . . . where everybody knows when they buy a house if they’re buying a potentially historic home. This particular case, I just really have trouble with the fairness issue of it. I think as a city, if we want to protect historic homes, we’ve got to find a better way to do it.”

But Commissioner John-Michael Cortez, while admitting that the homeowner may suffer if the house is declared historic, felt that some level of unfairness was an acceptable price for preserving the city’s history. The home, he said, clearly had historic value. “I personally don’t feel that we can sit here and deliberate over whether or not this property is of historic significance. I don’t think that should be a matter of contention by this body. And if the historic significance of this property has been well established, which I believe it has, then there really is no question that this structure should be protected at all costs,” he said, “regardless of any surrounding circumstances . . . which I think all of us would agree have been unfair. To fail to do so would not only constitute an erosion of the fabric of this neighborhood but the entire historical fabric of the community.” Cortez’s speech ended with an exhortation to his fellow commissioners. “I realize there may not be that many out there who place such a degree of significance on preserving the character and the community as I do, but I think it’s incumbent upon conscientious citizens to endeavor to protect our shared history,” he said.

Cortez’s comments, which he later referred to as “my little diatribe,” drew a sharp response from Commission Chair Betty Baker, who has long been active in historic preservation in Austin. “There are ways to protect neighborhoods without the misuse of historic zoning,” she said. “Mr. Cortez, your lengthy dissertation almost challenges the rest of us and tells us we’re not being considerate . . . that we’re not considering the merits of historic zoning. I personally take offense to it. I don’t think anyone in this room . . . has invested more time and more effort for historic preservation than I.” If the home truly were historic, Baker said, she would be the first to lead the charge to save it. But Baker disagreed with the findings of city staff as to the merits of the case. “I wish I could support it—the building is historic . . . but it’s not one of Kuehne’s best. The rise and fall and future of this neighborhood does not hinge on this one structure. If it were the last Hugo Kuehne structure in this city, I’d join hands with you and stand in front of the bulldozer. But it isn’t.”

Cortez initially moved to approve the historic designation, but his motion died for lack of a second. Jackson later moved to deny, with a second from Commissioner Joseph Martinez. The vote to deny was 8-1-1, with Cortez opposed and Commissioner John Philip Donisi going on the record as present but not voting. After the vote Cortez issued an apology to Baker. “I apologize if you characterize my remarks as being insulting to anybody, that was not my intention,” he said. “I’m sorry if they were interpreted as such.” That was good enough for Baker. “I couldn’t take it any other way,” she said, “and I accept your apology.”

For news from last week:

©2003 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved

Intel building finally getting new owner . . . KEYE News and the Austin Business Journal reported last night the federal government would purchase the abandoned Intel building as the home of the new federal courthouse. It’s a spot of bright news in a day that otherwise could seem very grim indeed for city officials. Mayor Will Wynn and Congressman Lloyd Doggett have scheduled a news conference at 9am at Republic Square to announce the purchase. The courthouse is expected to cost more than $62 million, according to the journal story . . . Speaking up . . . Council members today may ask for a briefing on the impact of the USA Patriot Act on the City of Austin. The briefing and an accompanying resolution in opposition to the law is likely to be on the agenda for August 7. Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman’s office is gathering information on the Act, which will be available in her office either Friday or early next week, according to her assistant, Andrew Rivera . . . Budget jitters . . . City Manager Toby Futrell has warned department heads that they must decline comment on the status of their employees until after she has given her budget presentation to the City Council at 2pm today . . . More contracts awarded . . . Capital Metro directors approved a contract for $1,269,000 with Ontira Communications yesterday to implement an interactive voice response system. Denise Ducharme, director of the Information Technology Department, said the company had achieved 25-percent participation.

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