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ARA, URB prepare to go separate ways, pursue new objectives

Tuesday, July 20, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

The Austin Revitalization Authority and the Urban Renewal Board are like a couple certain they’re ready to move forward with the divorce, somewhere between dividing the furniture and signing the final paperwork.


The tri-party agreement among ARA, URB and the city expires in October. Certainly the city is the key driver of the future of the agreement, but in separate meetings in recent weeks, both the ARA and URB already have begun the process of moving beyond the shackles of their marriage.


Chair Ben Sifuentes made it clear last night the Urban Renewal Board was ready to move on and find its way in this new world. For the first time in a decade, in light of its possible exit, the board was getting feedback that it was both wanted and needed for the future of East Austin.


“We aren’t going away. There’s a lot of work to be done,” said Sifuentes. “We still have Block 17. We’ve got to finish Block 16, Block 18. We still have the East 12th Street plan. There’s a lot of work that has to be done.”


The tri-party agreement dragged down the URB, Sifuentes said. Now the board could take the time to return to its core mission of listening and responding to the interests and goals of the East Side stakeholders.


“We got involved with the tri-party agreement, and we have lost energy and time,” Sifuentes said. “That is going to be resolved, and I think we have an enormous opportunity to do what is needed in this part of Austin.”


Sifuentes’ comments came after an executive session item on the possible dissolution of the board. Commissioner Sharon Baxter – who officially made the comment that the board would take no motion on the item – said she hoped this time of transition would be a time to get a renewed perspective on how URB could move forward in the stalled economy, working with the community to produce a plan that had the support of the community.


Four of the seven-member board attended last night’s meeting. Andrew Hudnall attended his first meeting. Sean Garretson and Michael Clark-Madison were absent. And Kevin Cole accepted a resolution thanking him for his service on the board, leaving after his second stint on the board.


Over at the private non-profit Austin Revitalization Authority, the board clearly intends to search for its new identify as it steps into its future without the tri-party agreement, a point that was a significant part of its meeting the last week of June.


The board does know it’s going to be different. They know it is a future without a tri-party agreement and a future that is unlikely to include new development, since the ARA board members admitted, in their own words, they’re “broke.” And the board that governs this new world, whatever it is, will be radically smaller than the current 30-member board the tri-party agreement deemed necessary.


Board member Larry Jackson, talking to the board at last month’s meeting, was very clear about what he wanted: He wanted to be a landlord who removed tenants as soon as rent was late, since ARA clearly was on its own financially now, with no one to bail them out. The board needed to “take care of what we own.” And Jackson wanted the responsibility for development to lie where it should have started, with the city that owned the property.


“The reason people don’t understand this is because they don’t associate with it,” Jackson said of the ARA’s situation and why the group got all the blame when it came to redevelopment. “They really don’t have to own up to it. Instead, we ought to have them step up to the table and tell us, ‘What are you going to do with the rest of Block 18? What are you planning to do with Block 17?’”


Colleague Edwin Ramos said it really didn’t matter what the city wanted to do with the property. The ARA’s real concern ought to be finding the incentive that would draw developers once the economy recovered. Local residents like Jason Standridge, for instance, want a local grocery store, but Jackson and Ramos agreed there was little incentive for a grocery store chain to relocate to a street that was occupied by a church and three houses, with antiquated infrastructure.


HEB might have created a grocery store model tailored to inner-city neighborhoods, but no one in his right mind would move that grocery store onto a street that would have no real audience, the group agreed.


If the organization intended to start over, then it really needed to start from scratch, Ramos told the handful of board members present at the meeting. The new effort would be to be both focused and rebranded before it could hope to a success. The effort would need broad support if it ever intended to wield political clout.


Short-term, the ARA does still own a parcel in Block 18 and had hopes of putting some temporary uses on the site, such as food trailers, to generate some revenue. While the ARA had some discussions with the Urban Renewal Board, the fact the URB rejected ARA’s proposal on Block 18 appeared to leave that up in the air.


As for Block 17, behind the current Street-Jones Building, Smith said that the city had approached ARA to be a project manager on the Austin Housing Finance Corporation’s own development on land owned by the Urban Renewal Agency.


Nothing in the city budget, however, indicated that dollars for any project would be forthcoming in the near future. So that left the proposal for some sort of partnership in limbo. Development of property on East 12th Street seems even further away, since none of the lots had been transferred from the city to the Urban Renewal Agency or any other entity.

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