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East Cesar Chavez activists protest VMU in neighborhood

Wednesday, July 29, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

For every zoning case in the East Cesar Chavez neighborhood –no matter how rudimentary it might be — there will always be opposition from local neighbors.

The case at last night’s Planning Commission meeting was simple: the inclusion of a lot in the vertical mixed-use overlay along Cesar Chavez Boulevard that was missed in prior votes, due to what seems to be a city staff oversight.

The lot is the other half of a used car sales lot that already is considered part of the Cesar Chavez VMU overlay. Still, residents, including Gavino Fernandez of El Concilio were on hand to protest the wide and broad use of VMU to the alleged exclusion and disenfranchisement of neighborhoods.

While Fernandez himself might be dismissed due to his checkered past, his concerns about the zoning along East Cesar Chavez are consistent with overall neighborhood concerns expressed through numerous zoning cases. In short, the argument is that was primarily gentrifying Anglos that formed the Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods (OCEAN), which represents East Austin. And those people were the ones who were members of the neighborhood contact team.

The theory goes, as it has in multiple zoning cases before this one, that the low- and middle-income residents of East Austin had been locked out of the process of the neighborhood’s future. It’s a concern that has never been resolved.

The point seemed most striking last night when Fernandez talked about Rainey Street. Fernandez noted that a handful of years ago, local residents were told to agree to the rezoning of the Rainey Street neighborhood from various single-family categories to the zoning of Central Business District, or CBD, and everyone would make a profit.

When development never came – or, more accurately, came on small parcels closest to Lady Bird Lake but nowhere else – local owners were saddled with high tax bills. Once more, it seemed to residents that no one but the wealthy ever benefit.

“Seven or eight years ago, they were told they’d make a killing. That has not been the case,” Fernandez reminded the commission. “They’re paying $9,000 in property taxes (per lot), and nothing is happening. That’s what we are coping with right now.”

Fernandez, one of a number of speakers, recommended that 7th Street would be a much better corridor for density, if the city is looking for density.

Fernandez told the commission that VMU status along the Cesar Chavez corridor was simply an effort to help speculative developers. No displaced property owner – or long-time low-income resident –would ever make a profit off VMU, unlike any number of developers, he said.

Planning Commission members told Fernandez and his colleagues that they had no choice but to approve the VMU zoning. It was correcting an oversight on a parcel in a neighborhood plan, Commissioner Gerardo Castillo told the group.

Cathy Vasquez Revilla, speaking on behalf of the neighborhood, acknowledged the neighborhood should have come forward sooner.

“I know that you already approved the other parcels,” said Revilla, admitting the neighborhood should have been present at the time other parcels were zoned VMU. “We should have been here for that. That’s really what we should have done, but we didn’t come to find out about it until after it was done. There was not a lot of communication between the East Cesar Chavez team and the neighborhood it represents. The approval of this application for VMU overlay zoning will only accelerate the process of gentrification because of higher property valuations.”

Neighborhood speakers called for a contact team that was sufficiently diverse, one that represented actual owners and not just token Hispanics in its make-up.

Commissioners had no answer to the change that the existing neighborhood contact team represented personal interests and not the interests of the typical East Austin resident, who makes no more than $30,000 per year.

“I think that we’re being asked to correct an oversight as far as the boundaries of a lot are concerned,” said Mandy Dealey, who made a somewhat regretful motion. “I’m not saying that the points of the neighborhood were not valid and not of concern to all of us. I hope we will have another opportunity to address those concerns and correct any mistake that might have been made.”

The vote of the committee was unanimous in favor of inclusion of the lot at 903 Cesar Chavez in the VMU zoning overlay, with Kirk urging protestors to be a part of the new comprehensive plan.

“The majority of us (in this group) don’t owe the bank. The land is ours. We are all Austin natives,” said Fernandez. “What we have right now is spot zoning. I thought we had stopped the practice of spot zoning, but VMU is a zoning tool that many of our neighborhoods and many of you don’t understand.”

The commission unanimously approved the rezoning of the properties on Cesar Chavez nearest the freeway to VMU.  They will be added to others along what is considered a transit corridor, intended to increase basic downtown density.

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