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City staff hears concerns about East 11th and 12th streets

Thursday, May 27, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The question at last night’s “corridor” forum was a whole lot clearer than the answer: Where should the city go from here with, or without, the tri-party agreement to redevelop East 11th and 12th streets in East Austin?

Last night’s corridor conversation, moderated by Shuronda Robinson, was launched with a question-and-answer panel that included ARA President Charles Urdy, Urban Renewal Board Vice Chair Sean Garretson, land use lawyer Nikelle Meade, Assistant City Manager Mike McDonald, Sandy Batisse of the mortgage industry, city land use planner Jerry Rusthoven, and market researcher Charles Heimsath.


Audience members did not hesitate to offer criticism. Long-time activist Melvin Wrenn, who launched the Q&A portion of the session, had no problem asking, right off the bat, whether it was time to eliminate the Urban Renewal Board and possibly the Austin Revitalization Authority and simply move forward with redevelopment.


McDonald fielded that question, noting that when the effort to revitalize East 11th and 12th streets was launched by the city, blight was not the only concern. Residents, given the history of the area, wanted an intermediary with the city. They were distrustful of city leaders and that’s what led to what McDonald described as “layers.”


“Something needed to be created so stakeholders could have a say in how the area was going to be developed, so that’s why you have some of the layers you have in place now,” McDonald said. “We’re at a different place now, and we need to have a discussion about how best to proceed from here.”


What a good number of people in the audience appeared to miss was the old neighborhood. When Eastside native McDonald described the neighborhood of his childhood, where he could walk from the Safeway grocery store to the Chuck Wagon BBQ to the Harlem Theater, people clapped. That neighborhood of old, however, was not there when McDonald returned as a street cop, nor is it there today, with less crime but new development that out-prices most longtime residents of the neighborhood, who have left for Pflugerville, Round Rock, and Manor.


Longtime resident Scottie Ivory simply wondered where the $9.1 million in initial seed funding had gone. Urdy said half had gone into East 11th Street’s first building and half into street infrastructure. That’s as far as initial funding went, and it is as far as the funding was intended to take the ARA, Urdy noted.


And while Rusthoven insisted the zoning along East 11th and 12th streets was some of the most flexible in the city – zoning changes within the Neighborhood Conservation Combining District, or NCCD, are expected to be fast-tracked – that was not the perception of the Mann family.


Minnie Mann, formerly of Minnie’s Beauty Salon, has had three contracts on her land. None came to fruition. Her son Steven said the ARA and City Council, and their agreements, seemed designed to keep people like him out of the neighborhood.


“I grew up in that whole community, and it’s impossible to cash in on our legacy, to fight against people who aren’t from here,” Steven Mann said. “My father passed away fighting for his right to sell his property, and it’s still a parking lot. We can’t even sell our property. We’re landlocked owners for the next 25 years until ARA decides what they would like to do with our property.”


However, Urdy insisted that was a complete misunderstanding. While ARA had offered to represent developers interested in corridor property, it had no claims to any property along East 12th Street, much less an ability to determine use. In the case of the beauty salon, it was intended to be part of a nursing home, but when ARA approached local neighborhoods, its ideas were rejected.


“At that point, there was no point in taking it to the URB,” Urdy said. “It was never our proposal and it was not our land. All we were doing was trying to expedite the development of that land, and I think it’s very important to the public to know that nothing ARA did could deter a developer on East 12th Street.”


Asked about gentrification and affordable housing in the area, Garretson said there was no doubt that local nonprofit groups would play a role in any future affordable housing development. Urdy said the issue of affordable housing would not be resolved without subsidies.

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