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Renewal Board urges city to act on East Austin redevelopment

Tuesday, April 20, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The Urban Renewal Board has given city leaders a gentle, yet firm, push towards a discussion of what needs to happen to build trust and a public process for future development along 11th and 12th streets in East Austin.


The point is not another round of revisions to the urban renewal plan. There have been plenty of those, commissioners admitted at last night’s meeting.


“We’ve opened up the plan so many times… that’s not what the community wants,” said Vice Chair Sean Garretson. “That’s not what the community wants. It’s more about process. How do we move forward, and not necessarily what kind of coffee do you intend to serve.”


What they wanted, Garretson explained, was a review of the public process. And when Chair Ben Sifuentes spoke about the need to schedule a public meeting, his colleague Kevin Cole chimed in with a reply.


“Call a special meeting,” Cole urged. “When do you want to have it?”


Chief of Staff Anthony Snipes made a quick intervention in the discussion, trying to explain the work that had gone on, from the city’s side, to try to pull together an organized process rather than disconnected discussions. Council members need to be informed. City departments need to be prepared.


The Urban Renewal Board needed to hear something – anything – on what was ahead, Garretson said. The board had made its own wishes, and concerns, known to Council six weeks ago. If nothing else, they needed to understand progress had been made. Instead, the Urban Renewal Board and Austin Revitalization Authority, in the words of one commissioner at last night’s meeting, “hadn’t heard diddly.”


Last night’s meeting was calm. There wasn’t a lot of outward anger or antagonism. But commissioners, one by one, underlined their desire to see some type of public hearing to get general feedback on the East Side development process.


Snipes insisted it was equally important to city staff to create the right tone. Too often, the last and most strident opponent kills a project. This time, the city wanted to get a true and fair handle on the opinions of current stakeholders: those residents and businesses who live in and across the neighborhood.


“We need to have all the key players here to have a frank discussion with the community,” Snipes said. “We need to be able to say, ‘Here’s what the plans are for the CIP. Here is what we can realistically do in the next five years.’”


The city’s commitment, Snipes said, is to make sure the community understands what can and cannot be done and what would be a realistic picture of redevelopment along East 12th Street, where the city owns some land.


“We don’t need everyone at each other’s throats,” Snipes said. “We need to know what we can do to move forward. We have an opportunity to do that now.”


At the least, the Urban Renewal Board has now offered its chair and vice chair – Sifuentes and Garretson – for further discussion with staff. While a date was left up in the air, members of the board pushed hard for public forum date.


The Urban Renewal Board also had a discussion with a panel of experts last night – attorney Nikelle Meade, real estate analyst Charles Heimsath and planner Jerry Rusthoven – on assessing just why more progress had not been made on development along the East Side corridors.


Rusthoven insisted that the neighborhood conservation combining district, or NCCD, was a plus, rather than a minus, to potential developers. And while Meade noted that the renewal plan might be more of a hindrance than a help to development, Cole insisted it was the only way to justify earlier eminent domain decisions that required the taking of local property.


While Cole frequently chimed in on other development in the areas as being “not us,” it also was noted that the stability and activity in the area did encourage some of the larger area development projects on the area’s periphery, like Robertson Hill.


Sifuentes said his concern was the city ending up owning property that is worth less now than when it was purchased. While other property in the area grew in value, the value of property that the city owned tended to decrease. Meade noted that the property was purchased at fair market value.

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