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Meeting opens dialogue on East Side redevelopment

Wednesday, April 2, 2008 by Kimberly Reeves

The process to amend redevelopment plans for Block 18 in East Austin began last night, a process that will take two months of community dialogue, the approval of two boards and the final approval of City Council sometime in October.


Last night’s meeting was the first of three community events sponsored by the Austin Revitalization Authority and the City of Austin. The division of labor was clearly defined: ARA talked about its long-standing wishes to densify Block 18 and the City of Austin spoke about its plans for commercial and residential development on Block 16, as well as the community amenities along East 11th Street.


As a frame of reference, Block 18 is the block on which the Victory Grill sits. Block 16 is one block off the freeway, on the block on which Ben’s BBQ now sits. ARA Executive Director Byron Marshall has argued that the financial viability of the blocks are related.


As Marshall outlined to the Urban Renewal Board last November – and the group last night – new plans for Block 18 would include doubling the retail and office space; putting in three-dozen affordable housing units instead of nine market-rate life/work lofts; the relocation of the East Room; and the addition of structured parking. Those modifications also will require an increase in floor-to-area ratio.


About 50 people attended last night’s introductory session. The attitude was mixed between those who are frustrated with the lack of progress on development and those who were agitated about the potential changes to a decade-old plan.


John Goode, who returned to Austin from California to launch his own business, was in the former category. A member of one of the original East Austin families that sold out its lots to the city – he’s related to the Ben in Ben’s BBQ — Goode anticipated coming back to open a restaurant on a street he knew revitalized with small locally owned businesses owned by people he knew.


“I moved back here, and since that time, nothing has happened,” Goode told the group. “It’s just meetings after meetings after meetings. All the black families that were here? They’re no longer in business.  I was 38 when I got here, and I’m 62 now. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and think, ‘Look at all those years I just threw away,’ because of the delay in getting anything done.”


Other members of the audience wanted the new density justified. Sandra Harkins of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development noted that the city was putting Block 16 on the market for private development. A developer likely will be paying between $19 and $21 per foot on the available two-acre parcel, which means that more density may be required to make it financially viable. While Block 18 requires more FAR, Block 16 is simply fitting more units into the current footprint, Harkins said.


Other members of the audience were concerned about issues such as adding greenery and open space to the street – a priority that can be set by the city – and whether the city would be making greater outreach efforts to locally owned small businesses – which Harkins said was a requirement of the federal funding used to buy Block 16. Incentives for local business could be set by the city and negotiated with a developer and would appear in the leasing process, Harkins said. One member of the audience said that while she appreciated incentives, she also didn’t want a deal so good that a less-than-viable business would be there for two years and then be gone.


Another member of the audience – most did not introduce themselves by name – said he wanted the city to get whatever value it could on a price for Block 16. This project should not be another CWA Building, referring to some of the earlier ARA difficulties.


According to the schedule, the next East End dialogue meeting is scheduled for April 26. The goal would be to focus on proposed changes to East 11th Street and reach consensus on modifications requested by ARA. A final meeting, scheduled for May 17, would focus on consensus for suggestions for modifications or changes on East 12th Street.

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