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Urban Renewal Plan gets Council endorsement

Monday, March 10, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

City Council approved a series of interlocking motions recently that set in motion the redevelopment of property along East 12th Street, following the work that already has been done on the neighboring East 11th Street.


Both streets are part of the city’s Urban Renewal Plan, which is being administered by the Austin Revitalization Authority. While East 11th Street is home to a number of publicly subsidized structures, the revitalization of East Austin will mean that many of the deals that occur on East 12th Street will be underwritten by developers.


This also stands as one of Paul Hilgers last acts as director of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development. He left the city at the end of last week to assume the job of deputy general manager at the Pedernales Electric Co-Op. Hilgers’ position will be assumed by Margaret Shaw, who has been his deputy.


For some, like Wilton Harris, redevelopment  on 12th Street cannot come soon enough. Harris, a retired city employee, has held onto property on East 12th Street for 30 years, property he bought as an investment income for his retirement years. Over the last several years, however, current zoning on the property made it difficult to sell the property.


“I couldn’t get people to buy it, deals fell through three times this past year,” Harris told Council during a public hearing on zoning changes. “As a result of this, I have not benefited from the property as an investor; the City of Austin has not benefited from it to the extent it could generate more tax revenue off this property; and the community has not benefited from it because they still have a blighted area.”


To encourage the sale and redevelopment of the property required a couple of motion. First, the Council had to pass the overarching Urban Renewal Plan. Then the Council had to approve the Neighborhood Conservation Combining District, which provided some consistent controls of the area for development. And then the Council had to approve the re-zoning of the majority of the properties to various new zoning categories, according to the plan that has been approved by the stakeholders and Council.


Not everyone was happy with the plan. One property owner, represented by an agent, groused about the differences in requirements between free-standing and attached property garages. And Paul Gladstone, representing the Anderson Neighborhoods, considered the mixed-use zoning designation on the properties to be mandatory under the current plan, rather than optional. Optional means things don’t get done, Gladstone said.


Gladstone also requested that an entity over than ARA mediate the issue, as ARA had its own interests in the development of the property.


Hilgers refuted Gladstone’s interpretation of the ordinance, saying that each block carried its own tear sheet of approved changes and that a “mandatory” designation of mixed-use would require the property to go through a new vetting process with stakeholders. He also noted that the tri-party agreement requires ARA to act on the city’s behalf in terms of property negotiations.


Two properties were pulled from the sheet of zoning motions, which encompassed about 18 properties on the north and south sides of East 12th Street. Even though it was after midnight when owner Gene Mays reached the microphone, he who owns the cocktail lounge at 1208 E 12th St, made an eloquent argument that the zoning on his property – and its legal non-conforming use as a cocktail lounge – should be preserved.


At one time, East Austin was the hub of African-American music and entertainment venues. Mays counted 92 entertainment venues, from the Harlem Theater and Palladium to the Oak Tree Lounge and the Aristocrat to the Groovy Bar and Soul Factory.


Under the Urban Renewal Plan, Mays could maintain his current use but if he ever rebuilt on this site, he would have to give up his current zoning. Council Member Mike Martinez, who took up Mays’ cause, asked that an exception be made for the property. That eventually was added to the motion as a continuing conditional use.


A second property also was up for additional scrutiny, at 1425 E 12th St. This property was slotted to become garden homes and town homes. Attorney Nikelle Meade, who represented the property owner, intended to ask for a postponement on the case, but it took so long to reach the item that she had managed to get many of her questions answered by Harkins by the time the item was pulled up by Council.


Meade’s said her client might solicit a zoning change on the property, which is now a convenience store and had been for 50 years, but that any change he intended to suggest would go through the proper stakeholder process.


The final motion the Council approved was to waive certain city fees on the property. As Hilgers noted, the waiver of fees simply follows the precedent set by Council when it approved the portion of the Urban Renewal Plan that applied to E 11th Street.

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