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Urban Board split over future course for Block 18 development

Tuesday, October 19, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Discussion at last night’s Urban Renewal Board meeting focused, in fits and starts, on just where the board would go on Block 18 and beyond.


That discussion included a tense showdown between Chair Ben Sifuentes and former Vice Chair Sean Garretson. Back in June, Garretson, a local affordable housing developer, produced a memorandum for the Urban Renewal Board and stakeholders, outlining the preferred short-term course for the city-owned property in the 1100 block of East 11th Street, known as Block 18.


Sifuentes provided copies of the memo to the Urban Renewal Board last night, then asked Garretson why he had acted on behalf of the board. The memo, distributed on June 10, outlined stakeholder preferences to create open space, upgrade fencing, add temporary art, improve the area adjacent to the Victory Grill and possibly place temporary mobile food vendors on site.


Sifuentes, the long-time president of the board, was far from pleased with Garretson’s efforts, which included a time line for short- and long-term goals.


“I don’t think anybody agreed with what you had in mind, charging forward and doing all of this,” Sifuentes told Garretson. “It is as if you had become a mini-URB on your own, and you went out and did all this, on your own. I had no idea you were doing that.”


As was laid out in discussion, Sifuentes and Garretson clearly have different recollections of what Garretson was expected to do in regards to Block 18. Garretson recalled volunteering to meet with stakeholders during an executive session over the summer. Sifuentes did not.


“This is ridiculous,” Garretson told Sifuentes, bristling. “This was written in June, and now it’s October.”


“I just wanted to avoid this whole discussion,” said Sifuentes, later adding. “You bypassed us all.”


The spat between the two commissioners divided their colleagues, some of whom were not on the commission over the summer. Andrew Bucknall, the group’s newest commissioner, said he was confused and uncomfortable with the work product, given that so much work had gone on apart from the commission.


Vice Chair Sharon Baxter said an interim plan was best handled in public setting, with a dialogue between commissioners and stakeholders. And Mike Clark-Madison, attempting to smooth the waters, said he had been aware of the discussions through his involvement with the Congress for the New Urbanism.


“These discussions have not implied any commitment of resources or authority,” Clark-Madison said. “This is just an idea, and we’re having a discussion of ideas of things that could happen. That is the place where we are at tonight, deciding whether we want to move forward.”


Baxter said she would have preferred to see a cost analysis on the proposal. Garretson said the ideas were so broad and conceptual that it would be impossible to put a firm price on the proposal.


Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Acting Director Betsy Spencer volunteered to contact the stakeholder groups for “an open dialogue.” The board decided on two November meeting dates: a meeting on Nov. 1 to cover ethics, bylaws and a briefing on Robert’s Rules of Order, and another on Nov. 15 to talk to stakeholders.


That stakeholder meeting is intended to create an interim plan. The Urban Renewal Board, which is turning Block 18 back over to the city, will have six months to negotiate a long-term plan for the land. Sifuentes, Baxter and Clark-Madison, it was decided last night, will serve on a committee that will begin the negotiations for what ultimately will happen with the block.


Along the same lines, Sifuentes also was unhappy with the fact the topic of urban renewal was on the agenda for the Planning Commission’s Neighborhood Planning Committee on Wednesday night. At this juncture, any kind of report the URB might give the committee would be premature, he told his colleagues.


Garretson, once more on the other side, said he saw no problem with going and being part of the discussion, along with the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department. Since the item was posted for a briefing, and no action, the board took no vote. A number of Urban Renewal Board members will likely show up for the Wednesday briefing.

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