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Renewal Board may preside over end of agreement, its own demise

Tuesday, June 22, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

If it wasn’t already apparent, the Urban Renewal Board’s actions last night appeared to anticipate the inevitable demise of the tri-party agreement and the potential dissolution of the board itself as an entity.


In fact, those were the items that Chair Ben Sifuentes asked to be placed on an upcoming URB agenda: the future of the tri-party agreement, which ends in October; the dissolution of the Urban Renewal Board; and what would be entailed in making amendments to the existing urban renewal plan.


The Urban Renewal Board, given the recent departure of housing department head Margaret Shaw, also put off consideration of an Austin Revitalization Authority proposal for the development of townhomes on Block 17 behind the existing Street-Jones Building. Privately, board members admitted a month may not be enough to untangle the encumbrances that the city and ARA appear to share on the block.


Where does everything stand, more than a decade into this process? The community wanted a site that harkened back to the East Side’s historic roots, to replace a long-standing crime-ridden neighborhood with a kinder, purer version of itself. In the meantime, the area gentrified and produced a whole new group of homeowners who had no ties to the area’s history or any of the earlier plans.


“They’re not going to get it,” Sifuentes said of that urban nirvana. “It’s over. It’s over.”


And with that, the 82-year-old Sifuentes – the long-time champion of his East Side neighborhood – sounded like he is equally done with the whole process.


“It’s not reality. It’s not how the world operates, how development happens,” said Sifuentes of a neighborhood he sometimes fails to recognize when he steps outside his door on East 9th Street. “You’re not going to change this neighborhood back to create something that isn’t there. You have to deal with the reality of the new community, because it’s the market that is going to drive this community.”


That leads to Sifuentes’ assessment on the tri-party agreement and the Urban Renewal Board. Already, it appears likely that the Austin Revitalization Authority won’t be able to meet its obligations under the tri-party agreement. Nor is the economy so robust that developers are knocking down the city’s door to replace ARA as the developer of choice on city-owned tracts in East Austin.


“The URB and the tri-party agreement didn’t work,” Sifuentes said. “Why do we need it? Why do we have it? Do away with them. The Urban Renewal Agency’s sole power is eminent domain, and we’ve already gotten the land that we’ve gotten, and it can’t be developed right now.”


Why then, would the Urban Renewal Board continue to sit around, month after month, for the next two to three years, waiting for something to happen? Sifuentes would prefer to see market forces turn property into projects.


“What are we going to do, continue playing pretend that something is happening here?” Sifuentes asked of the board he’s chaired for much of its existence. “It’s ridiculous to keep the organization around. So it’s time to end it.”


Mike Clark-Madison, the newest member of the board, is still open to some purpose for the Urban Renewal Board. But even he sees it as something different, maybe a board that would address blight issues in hot spots across the city.


The board could still guide the discussion of community benefits for the East 11th and 12th street corridors, he said, or even consider how Austin might redevelop areas with high potential public interest such as the Highland Mall/Airport Boulevard corridor. Public-private partnerships could be crucial in these areas, he said.


“These are areas you have – and it’s not what people always think of as disadvantaged – where it could present a lot of opportunity for discussion as a community, as to what can be done to redevelop these areas,” Clark-Madison said. “There are probably appropriate roles that we could play as a board, depending upon what the community wants.”


Whether Council could find a new, and higher, purpose for the Urban Renewal Board is still up for discussion. As it stands, it’s difficult to imagine an agreement to be signed in October with only two of the three parties at the table.

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