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Cesar Chavez B&B wins Council appeal over neighborhood’s objections

Monday, March 29, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Council backed a local couple’s efforts to open a bed-and-breakfast inn on Cesar Chavez Street last week over the objections of more than two-dozen Eastside neighbors who tied the development to the gentrification in their neighborhood. Those opposed were appealing a conditional use permit granted by the Planning Commission.


Activist Marcos De Leon organized a protest march and more than two-dozen speakers against the permit for hotel/motel use for the East Side Inn in the 1600 block of Cesar Chavez. Owners Kim Setzer and George Reynolds proposed a five-bedroom addition behind the existing 1925 bungalow on their property to create a seven-bedroom bed & breakfast. It would be located between two existing homes also converted for business.


The crux of the neighborhood’s case was that this project would drive one more nail into the coffin of East Austin. While the down economy has minimized the gentrification uproar over the last two years, it’s clear the concern that elderly and low-income residents are being priced out of East Austin is one that continues to simmer on the back burner.


And it has a history. Hispanics were moved out of downtown and into East Austin in 1928, life-long resident Paul Hernandez told the Council. And for 40 years, those same Hispanics fought for a better quality of life in East Austin. Now, after that four-decade struggle, a new displacement was occurring that was ripping the fabric of the community, Hernandez said.


“Some of us have fought for our rights, and we will continue to fight for our rights,” said Hernandez, who pulled himself upright from his wheelchair in order to address Council. “We have a right not to be removed, a right to be able to have a quality of life that we work for.”


Allow gentrification to spread, and it tears at the fabric of a community, Hernandez said. Hernandez said its one thing to take a community’s structures; it’s another thing to take a community’s history and voice.


“Y’all don’t know what it’s like to be born in the barrio,” Hernandez said. “We were very poor but never hungry. You want to send us people who don’t give a damn about anything but the buildings, but we want to live there. We have every right to do that.”


DeLeon, representing the East Town Lake Citizens Association, also added the voices of his young grandchildren, who read from prepared speeches that talked about families losing their homes, being taxed out of their neighborhoods. Of the 42 speakers who signed up for the hearing, 30 registered in support of the appeal of the conditional overlay for the project.


Setzer and Reynolds, however, did have their supporters, including some long-time members of the community and the neighborhood contact team. Setzer presented her plan for the house-turned-hotel, stressing it would be a mom-and-pop operation with limited traffic and noise, one that would be compatible with the existing business uses along Cesar Chavez. This would not be – now or with a future owner – anything like a Motel 6, Setzer said.


“This is a conditional use permit and not a zoning change,” Setzer said. “This is a seven-room inn on this particular property and while it’s true those rights could transfer to a new owner, a larger hotel or a chain hotel would not be permitted to do something dramatically different on this property. There’s not enough room.”


Opponents of the project were not necessarily kind to supporters of the project. When Sabino Renteria, a neighborhood plan team member, walked to the microphone to testify, he received catcalls and the shouted label “bandito.” Renteria and De Leon represent two different east side factions that have been at odds on many issues throughout the years, so it was no surprise that they disagreed on the permit.


Still, Renteria, clearly nervous, pressed on with his support of the conditional overlay on the property, noting it was in line with the neighborhood plan, in general, and would preserve a historic 1925 craftsman house. Renteria argued it was more important to keep the residential homes in the area intact, regardless of use, than it was to worry about the additional commercial use.


Renteria argued it was time to stop fighting gentrification and change and start negotiating with the inevitable change that would come to the neighborhood.


“We need to support having our community sitting down and working out the problems that we’re facing,” Renteria said of controversial proposals. “If we’re not, we’re going to be doomed.”


Renteria also took a slap at the Holly neighborhood planning team, noting the community had chosen to use its city settlement funds to buy up property in its neighborhood and hold it, rather than embracing change and working out the best deal for the neighborhood.


Developer Michael Casias also spoke. If the community really had concerns, then it was their obligation to bring the small business they said they supported to the neighborhood, rather than setting obstacles to redevelopment. New development is not always bad. It can bring new blood and new life, Casias said.


In the meantime, honest brokers were being caught in the crossfire, Casias said. Setzer and Reynolds had been open, honest and ready to negotiate with the neighborhoods on their concerns.


“I think this process has gone on months too long and cost way more than they ever thought, and they haven’t even started with the building inspection process,” said Casias, who has built a number of projects in East Austin.


Council did not appear to be convinced by the neighborhood’s arguments against the project. Council Member Chris Riley moved, immediately after the speakers finished, to close the hearing and deny the appeal. Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez seconded that motion.


Council Member Bill Spelman clarified the conditional use permit was linked the site plan but that any additions would require additional commission and Council review. Limitations agreed to on the property would be noted in the site plan, according to city staff.


Council Member Laura Morrison also supported the denial, saying the bed & breakfast use was fairly innocuous and a good use, given the CS zoning on the property. And Council Member Randi Shade noted that this case – like others – pointed out that different people in the same neighborhood could have different visions for a particular property.


Shade said she wanted to be respectful of the group’s concerns but that change was a part of being in the Austin community. Neighborhoods around the city had dealt with change that comes with growth on a regular basis. And that the challenges that East Austin faced, including rising property taxes, were challenges faced by neighborhoods all over Austin.


The appeal was denied on a 7-0 vote.

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