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Planning committee ponders future of 11th/12th street corridor plan

Friday, October 22, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

An initial discussion between Planning Commission members and those involved in the urban renewal of East 11th and 12th streets at Wednesday’s Neighborhood Plan committee meeting had the feeling of a first date – cordial but a little tense.


Around the table were the representatives of the Planning Commission, Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, the Urban Renewal Board and East Austin residents. No one knew each other well and plans were tentative, so there was a lot of chatter, some uneasy laughter and an attempt to pin down just what everyone expected.


Danette Chimenti chairs the committee, but it was Planning Commission Chair Dave Sullivan who made the introductions in this case, noting that Urban Renewal Board Chair Ben Sifuentes had called him in July to set up a meeting, which had been put off until after the tri-party agreement had expired.


Betsy Spencer, acting director of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development, was on hand to provide a brief update, outlining how the tri-party agreement had expired and was now a tentative two-party agreement between the city and the Urban Renewal Board. Over the next six months, the parties will determine a future together, Spencer said.


Representatives of neighborhoods at the meeting admitted to a sense of envy for a neighborhood plan presented earlier in the meeting. While other neighborhoods in Austin had the predictability of a neighborhood plan, the East 11th and 12th street corridors had been carved out of neighborhood plans, giving local residents no chance to provide feedback to proposed projects.


Tracy Witte of Swede Hill said the neighborhoods’ desire, beyond input, was some consistency amongst the plans — the neighborhood plans, the urban renewal plan, and the Neighborhood Conservation and Combining District. That meant a commitment to neighborhood-serving retail along the corridor.


URB Commissioner Sean Garretson quoted city staff, calling the zoning along East 12th street “the most flexible zoning in the city.” If that was the case, Witte said, then it was the neighborhood’s preference to see neighborhood serving mixed-use development. If that land use was not going to occur, then neighbors would have preferred to see the city zoning entitlements rolled back on the properties along East 12th Street.


Permissive or not, no significant development has happened along the East 12th Street corridor. Commissioner Saundra Kirk, who grew up in the neighborhood, asked whether a new market study being conducted by the city was “going to break the impasse” along East 12th Street.


Spencer said the study alone would not affect change, but that her department was making a more concerted effort to work with other city departments, including economic development, to jump start new projects along East 12th Street.


“The market study will be a tool to help us,” Spencer said. “I think it would be false to say the market study is going to solve the problems.”


The East 12th Street corridor was more complicated issue than a simple market study, Spencer said. The last two years were not excuse, Spencer said, but they definitely had not been kind to development, in East Austin or elsewhere.


During the discussion, Kirk said it did make some sense that medical office was being proposed for the corridor at this time, over neighborhood protest. Developers were looking to recoup the cost of land bought at the height of the real estate market, Kirk said. Medical office was an easy fix.


In that same vein, developers also were looking for pools of money to bankroll new developments. One of those new developments is the proposed rehabilitation of the Marshall Apartments on East 12th Street, which would include some fraction of the units devoted to permanent transitional housing.


Spencer’s career has been devoted to affordable housing, so it was logical that she would defend the use of supportive housing as a way to provide a safety net for people who were struggling, including those already in the neighborhood. Such a project could be a positive addition to the community, Spencer said.


For the neighborhood, however, the commitment to rehabilitate an apartment complex sounded hollow. Neighbors would have preferred the first major investment along the corridor to be one that would set the trend, an investment that would encourage other developers to devote resources to the corridor, Witte told the committee last night.


Spencer did qualify that the city had not sought out the Marshall investment and were not familiar with the specifics of the project. The rehabilitation project had not come because of city solicitation, Spencer said, but it was clear many of the newer neighbors, who waited a decade for the development of East 12th Street, would have preferred an investment that signaled a brighter future.


The summit between the parties, however, did not leave on a negative tone. Sullivan and members of the committee were interested in the planning implications of the process and volunteered to attend the Urban Renewal Board meeting in November to establish further relations with the URB.


“There are a lot of different visions of what the neighborhoods and community want this corridor to look like,” Spencer said. “It’s our job, as a city organization, to decide how do we marry up all these plans that are out there, and get input from the different communities and actually get movement on the corridor.”

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