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Planning Commission approves east side studio over strong objections

Monday, October 18, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

Discussion about a rezoning case on the east side became surprisingly heated on Tuesday when the Planning Commission met to consider the request of an owner to convert his property into a music recording studio. 


The property in question is a vacant church located at 2205 East 12th Street. The owner and applicant, Dr. Paul Riekert, was requesting both an amendment to the neighborhood’s future land use map (FLUM) from Civic to Mixed Use and a rezoning of the property from Multi-Family 3 to Limited Office-Mixed Use.


Riekert, who purchased the property in June, said he has no plans to alter the exterior of the building.


According to documentation provided by Riekert and his agent, since the church became vacant in 2007, the police have been contacted 16 times about possible crimes occurring on or against the property, including eight burglary reports. In addition to allowing him to realize a longtime dream, Riekert said, building the studio on the property would allow for the “rehabilitation of a building that has become a magnet for crime.”


According to Joi Harden of the city’s Planning and Development Review Department, Riekert’s request has the support of the Rosewood neighborhood planning team, city staff, and the neighbors adjacent to the property.


However, it quickly became clear that not everyone in east Austin supports Riekert’s plan.


The Rev. Ira L. Lewis, for one, opposed the plan in the most serious terms, touching on the Bible, suspect municipal land deals, and the history of American racism in a short seven minutes.


“There’s no respect of this being holy ground,” Lewis began. “God told Moses when he went up on Mt. Sinai, ‘Take off your shoes because the ground you’re standing on is holy ground.’”


Lewis went on to condemn the commission for what he sees as hypocritical land-use practices by the city. “You forced me and my ancestors (east of I-35). We developed that place; we built the culture over there. You forced us over there; now you’re trying to take it away from us,” he said. “Go destroy Hyde Park. Go destroy Travis Heights. I bet you won’t bother those communities. But you come into east Austin and build these high-price houses and tax out the neighbors so they can’t afford to live there anymore.”


Lewis said that the sale of property at 2205 East 12th is another example of the city trying to drive out the black community through secret, undisclosed deals. “I never saw a sign saying that property was vacant and for sale,” he said. “And to me that’s a civil rights violation. To me, this property has been negotiated anonymously. If god is with me, I’m going to file a lawsuit against this.”


Lewis then compared the gentrification of east Austin to slavery, Jim Crow laws, the blight caused by illegal drugs, and forced busing to white schools, saying they’ve all played a part in destroying the African-American community in Austin. “There’s no excuse for what you all are trying to bring up here,” he said. “You’re trying to destroy us but I’m not going to sit by and let it happen. You all are economically depriving us in East Austin and you’re doing it intentionally.”


Commissioner Alfonso Hernandez said he wondered where Lewis’ obvious passion was during the three years the church stood vacant.


“What we’ve been shown is that there were many unholy things going on there,” Hernandez said, “and if you’re coming out very passionately against somebody trying to do something good there, where has this passion been the past three years?”


Lewis responded that he didn’t know the property was vacant until this past July, after it had been sold to Riekert. He also said that the very fact that there were no signs advertising the sale of the property was indication that the city prefers to sell properties on the east side “anonymously” to make gentrification easier. “You’re doing all these secretive things to abolish our community,” he said.


Harden told the commissioners, however, that the sale of the property to Riekert was a private one and that the city had not been involved.


Harden also confirmed Commissioner Danette Chimenti’s claim that if the zoning change isn’t granted for the recording studio by City Council, and the property stays zoned Multi-Family 3, the church could be torn down at some point and a multi-family development put up in its place.


Saundra Kirk, who was born and raised on the east side, made a motion to approve of staff’s recommendation to amend the FLUM and rezone the property, saying that she had to balance her concerns about the cultural state of the east side with her responsibilities as a member of the Planning Commission.


“It does feel like a tremendous loss when you see a cultural fabric disintegrate,” she said. “However … all the evils of society and segregation and desegregation and integration, we cannot resolve here. That’s not our charge. Our charge is to deal with best land use.”


The commission voted 7-0 in favor of the changes, with commissioners Mandy Dealey and David Anderson absent.

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