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Developer blasts Urban Renewal Agency for five-year project delay

Tuesday, December 15, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Developer Michael Casias took his handful of minutes at the microphone before the Urban Renewal Agency’s board meeting last night to blast the maze of rules and regulations through multiple agencies overseeing East 11th and 12th Streets that delayed his East Village development project in Block 19 five years longer than anticipated.

The board, chaired by Ben Sifuentes, agreed to commit to a new planning process with the community and stakeholders last month. More accurately, the process likely will be a candid discussion of what can and cannot get done on the remaining city-owned land and to get the community back on board with the process.

Multiple people, including those who are charged with fixing what was wrong after the recent Austin Revitalization Authority audit, would like to move on with the process with as little finger pointing and recrimination as possible.

But Casias, frustrated with delays on a corridor that have robbed him and other of the full development benefits promised in the vision of East 11th and 12th streets, cannot let things lie and used his time before the board to air his concerns. He talked about his fight to deliver a project with practically no financial backing, fighting the city every step of the way and delivering a building intended to meet the community’s goals of providing space for local small businesses.

“There are certain obstacles which have held us up for five years, actionable incompetence and misinterpretations,” said Casias, alluding to the hoops he had to jump through to get his project done. “At the end of the day, though, we will do what it takes to get things done in this corridor and, at the end of the day, we will deliver more in community benefit than the millions of dollars that are spent on expensive projects.”

The partners in the tri-party agreement have to move on, and need to move on, but part of that “moving on” may be to move through concerns like those cited by Casias. While Casias might be the developer some view as bringing gentrification to the East Side, he also has suggestions, such as the need to bring businesses together to take advantage of façade grants and focusing efforts of maintaining small business.

Businesses on the corridor are tired of waiting, Casias said. His wife’s Dandelion Café is tired of waiting. Everyone talks about keeping small businesses in the neighborhood, but they don’t deliver on that promise. They talk about a vision that includes the African-American community while the community’s traditional African-American community deserts the neighborhood.

Casias is not likely to win a lot of love, though, telling officials that a new visioning process was ridiculous or that the last thing the neighborhood needed was a Disney Land recreation of its cultural heritage, rather than an authentic effort to preserve the existing structures in the area.

“Two years from now, when you’re done, you’ll find out the neighbors wanted the same things they wanted 20 years ago. They wanted small businesses and affordable housing, which should have been promoted, but then you run into these actual situations, which are the worst combination of regulations and departments,” Casias said. “You need to manage these regulations to actually get it done.”

At a couple of points in his comments, legal counsel cautioned Casias to contain his remarks to Block 19. And while his exchange with the board was not tense – Casias was determined but his voice trembled a bit at times – he did not gain a lot of traction with the board members, who had spent a lengthy executive session deciding what to do with two unresolved undeveloped blocks.

Board members offered no response to his comments, and, afterward, Mike Clark-Madison asked how much longer Casias would be on the agenda. The answer was that he was a part of the agenda until his project was considered substantially leased, a term which was defined by staff. Sean Garretson told Casias there would be a time and place for his comments during the new stakeholder process.

Clark-Madison expressed his interpretation of the issue in comments prior to the discussion of Block 19. Clark-Madison said the question had been expressed in various ways, but it came down to two options: wait or go.

“What is more important – moving the project forward and getting something built or getting something, in particular, built, even if it takes longer?” Clark-Madison asked. “Are we trying to expedite the process and get it over with, or not? That’s something the community would like the chance to weigh in on.”

After Casias’ exchange with the Urban Renewal Agency board – or lack of exchange – it was difficult to determine the mindset of the board.

For one thing, three members were absent: Kevin Cole, Cristina De La Fuentes-Valadez and Daffney Henry. The most crucial decisions of the board, made after executive session with legal counsel, resulted in votes but no discussion.

On Block 16, which is the city-owned block on East 11th Street closest to Interstate 35 and once the home to Ben’s BBQ, the board expressed its intention to send out a Request for Proposals from potential developers. That block also will be home to the historic Detrick-Hamilton House, which will serve as home to the African-American Resource Center, as well as the offices of the Capital City African-American Chamber of Commerce.

The board also requested an affordability strategy be developed for 20 percent of the proposed housing units on Block 17, which is that undeveloped part of the block behind the current Street-Jones Building. The board expressed a desire to see the financial numbers run that would incorporate setting aside 20 percent of the proposed live-work housing for 80 percent median-family income. The Austin Revitalization Authority is expected to develop Block 17.

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