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Urban Renewal Board seeks new revitalization plan after ARA audit

Tuesday, November 17, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

The answer to the recent, rather challenging city audit of the Austin Revitalization Authority appears to be to scrap the current revitalization plan and start over again, in deference to economic realities and to provide an opportunity to win back community support.


The direction emerged at last night’s Urban Renewal Board meeting, where city audit staff and Chief of Staff Anthony Snipes were on hand to support Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Director Margaret Shaw’s discussion of the audit findings, which will be presented to the ARA board Tuesday night.


The “re-vision” of the revitalization of the 11th/12th street corridors was one recommendation of the audit and a suggestion that URB was clearly ready to embrace. The attitudes and opinions of the board members emerged most freely in a discussion with one-time city liaison and current interim ARA Director Greg Smith.


“We know what we have is not working,” said Commissioner Daffney Henry, simply.


One thing was clear at last night’s ARA meeting. The status quo would not work going forward, even if the city audit absolved everyone of blame. In his comments, Chair Ben Sifuentes noted that the goals of the current plan no longer applied to East Austin.


“The economy has changed, dramatically,” Sifuentes told Smith and his colleagues, talking about the direction of the plan. “This was a blighted area, and it’s not any more. … The whole complexion of Central East Austin has changed dramatically. … This is no longer the town that it was 10 years ago.”


And, as Sifuentes noted candidly, it’s hard to know what role an Urban Renewal Agency would play in such an area. Ten years ago, the two corridors were rife with crime and run-down properties. It was federal money, in fact, that subsidized much of the land purchased by the city in order to remove some of that blight. Now it’s hard to figure out whether federal involvement from the Housing and Urban Development Department has a place in East Austin at all, Sifuentes said.


“It has changed,” Sifuentes said of East Austin. “I don’t know that if we were to go forward with development that HUD would even be involved anymore. I think we’d be looking at private development from here on out. And what we complained about on 11th Street probably doesn’t exist anymore. It’s moved out to 12th and Chicon.”


That’s the strange dichotomy of East Austin. The recent economic uptick, and the general interest in cheap East Austin property, means what was blighted no longer is. On the other hand, when it comes to what ARA has accomplished in recent years, Smith said he left the city in 2005 for retirement and came back in 2009 to find nothing, literally, had changed.


“Between 2005 and now is about 4.5 years that I was not associated with this,” said Smith, who served as the city staff liaison to ARA and URB. “I’m asking the question, what really happened during that time period?”


Very little, the record would show, although there has been plenty of talk. Some of that is the fact, as the audit noted, that financing was bundled so that the next project would not be funded until the prior project was complete. Such a domino-like way of financing fell into trouble as soon as problems arose.


Even broader than the specific actions of ARA and URA is the fact that East Austin changed and the focus of the revitalization of East Austin has become more clouded. Revitalization in East Austin began as a grassroots effort; it no longer is. The stakeholders in the process have changed, Smith said.


“The recommendations that we have before you now are not coming from the grassroots,” Smith said. “Instead, it’s coming from city staff. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. It’s just a paradigm shift.”


Henry asked Smith what, from his perspective, needed to be done differently. The audit pointed out “where we are,” Henry said. “Where do we go from here?”


“I’d like to go back to 2003,” admitted Smith, acknowledging his own bias. “It was working then, and everything was happening, and everyone was working together.”


Beyond history, however, was the underlying question: Was this right for the community? In some of the most open comments made by URB members, Commissioner Sharon Baxter questioned what had been accomplished. “I understand the need to remove blight, but it wasn’t intended to remove community; but that’s what happened,” Baxter said. “Somebody needs to figure out a way to remove blight without eradicating a community.”


Yes, maybe the overall population of East Austin has changed, Baxter acknowledged. Maybe the goals have changed. Still, the goal to preserve the fabric of the historic East Austin community was not one that should be discarded so carelessly.


Asked for his own reflections on the audit’s recommendations, Smith admitted he did not think of the recommendation of a project manager as the way to get to the crux of the problem. Instead, Smith talked about a concerted effort that focused on how to get things done rather than who may or may not have done what.


Commissioners agreed it was time to bring the ARA and URB boards together, plus city staff, to make an honest assessment of the current plan. Suggestions included getting the input of the East Austin community. Daffney, for one, supported the idea of community input on the future of the corridors but only if that input were taken seriously. Otherwise, people would only be frustrated, she said.

Commissioners Kevin Cole and Sean Garretson were absent from last night’s meeting. The balance of the commission, however, appeared to be strongly in favor of moving forward with new discussions that would include all members of the tri-party agreement and the community, discussions that might seriously change the current revitalization plan.

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