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Parties divided over future of East Austin revitalization pact

Friday, April 2, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The tri-party agreement that has bonded the city, the Austin Revitalization Authority and the Urban Renewal Agency for at least a decade appears to be fraying around the edges as the contract comes up for renewal in October.


The covenant was intended to be a catalyst that would redevelop city-owned land, primary along the East 11th and 12th street corridors in East Austin. The city owns numerous properties in the East End, including blocks already developed by the Austin Revitalization Authority, a non-profit intended to represent the stakeholders in this traditionally African-American community.


A decade into the process, redevelopment has been sporadic – challenged by the economy and circumstance, according to the ARA – and limited to a small number of blocks along East 11th Street. Early in March, Central East Austin neighborhoods passed a resolution suggesting the Austin Revitalization Authority should get out of the development business, which produced a tense showdown between board members at last week’s ARA meeting.


In its resolution, the two local neighborhood associations and some area businesses suggested the parties under the tri-party agreement, at ARA’s prompting, had entered into multiple acquisition, development and loan agreements, operational contracts and professional service agreements that resulted in expenditures more than $23 million.


According to the resolution, that led to “unmanageable debt obligations for ARA, a compromised investment in the East 11th Street corridor for the City of Austin, a quest for liquidity that conflicts with ARA’s responsibility to ensure development ‘effective and compatible for with neighborhood interests’ and, most glaring of all, the majority of the Project – the East 12th Street corridor from I-35 to Poquito Street – not yet even begun.”


Ben Sifuentes, the long-time Urban Renewal Board member who currently chairs the board, said he’s not surprised with the resolution, given the history.


“The neighborhoods were not in favor of the experiment to take this non-profit organization and teach them how to become developers from the very beginning,” Sifuentes said. “Through the last 10 or 11 years, their fears and frustrations were proven to be with merit.”


The Austin Revitalization Authority was created to represent the voice of the East Austin community in the development of city-owned property along East 11th and 12th streets. Initially, that was the African-American community of East Austin, but in recent years gentrification has brought an increasing number of new white homeowners.


Members of the Swede Hill, Robertson Hill and SHNA East 12th Street Committee are frustrated by the lack of progress being made. At meetings held in late February and early March, the first two groups passed a joint resolution that suggested removing the Austin Revitalization Authority as a member of the current Tri-party agreement and eliminating its role in projects related to East 12th Street.


“By every estimation, ARA, as steward of the revitalization of East 12th Street for more than a decade, has been unable to gain the trust of the community and succeed with revitalization,” the neighborhoods wrote in the resolution. “As mentioned in the Audit Report, we also recommend critically re-examining the roles assign to both the Urban Renewal Association and the City’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department.”


Sifuentes, in fact, sees no real purpose to the Urban Renewal Board, either. Its initial role accomplished – eminent domain – the Urban Renewal Board simply has served as cover for decisions ultimately made by the City Council, Sifuentes said.


“We said no. We had said no plenty of times, but what you must realize is that the city has been the driver of this whole thing. Council decided this or that was going to happen,” Sifuentes said. “All we’ve done, in our function, is eminent domain. We had no power over what the city and city employees do. We don’t hire anyone, and we don’t fire anyone. We don’t evaluate their performance. City staff acts as our staff, but we cannot direct them.”


The resolution, addressed to Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council, also goes on to suggest the city increase its own commitment to revitalizing East 12th Street by committing significant resources toward comprehensive streetscape and infrastructure improvements and ramping up incentives for potential developers. At last week’s Council meeting, Leffingwell said he had yet to see the resolution.


Chair Charles Urdy put the resolution on last week’s agenda to open up dialogue. Stan Strickland of Robertson Hill and Rob Seidenberg of SHNA were in attendance and ready for the discussion. Strickland sits on the ARA board. The discussion was, by turns, an expression of frustration with the lack of progress and the suggestion that if any progress has been made on East 11th Street it’s only been done because of the Austin Revitalization Authority’s efforts.


For many long-time East Austin residents on the ARA board, the redevelopment of East 11th and 12th street is personal, a rejection of the city’s earlier failed efforts to address the blight in what was once East Austin’s most vital neighborhood. Vera Davis said ARA functioned far better before the city got involved, expanding the board from 13 to 30 people and the addition of much red tape.


“I made a personal vow to my family that I was not going to let ARA be destroyed because I walked away,” Vera Davis said. “We were the beginnings of the economic growth and development along 11th and 12th streets. We were the ones who were going to help revitalize the area, but then everybody else decided, ‘If ARA can do it, then I want some of that, too.’”


Strickland stressed that the concerns with ARA were not intended to minimize or erase the racial unrest of Austin that had led to the tri-party agreement. The neighborhoods’ position was not motivated out of race or disrespect; instead, it was motivated out of a despair that nothing was getting done, Strickland said.


“This is not a jab at the elders of the community and what they have seen over the years, nor is it any meaning of disrespect,” Strickland said. “It’s realizing the here and now, and I think that calls for us to re-examine the fundamental arrangement that is the tri-party agreement.”


The ARA board took no formal action on the resolution. Last week’s Urban Renewal Agency board meeting was canceled.

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