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East Side residents use zoning case to vent anger at Council

Monday, November 8, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Council got a strong dose of general East Side discontent during the rezoning of a shuttered church Thursday, with long-time activist Scottie Ivory criticizing the failure of the city to maintain the historic character of East Austin.


The 12th Street Baptist Church hasn’t held a service since 2006 and has been informally on the market since then. New owner Peter Riekert wants to maintain the exterior of the 60-year-old structure, while converting its use to a music recording studio and accessory apartment. That required two changes: the designation on the future land use map from civic to mixed use and shifting the zoning designation on the property from MF-3-NP to LO-MU-NP.

After a number of years of neglect and at least eight burglaries on site to strip the property of its copper and electrical wiring, among other things, conversion of the property had broad support, agent Will Schnier told Council. Those who supported the zoning change included the Rosewood neighborhood plan contact team, the adjacent properties, city staff and the Planning Commission.


The church, when built, had nine parking spaces. The square footage today would require 21 spaces, one likely reason why another congregation was not eager to take on the property, Schnier said. Schnier also wanted to clear up any misconception the property would serve as a live music venue, a point that was questioned closely by Council Member Laura Morrison.


“There’s been some misconception that it’s a live music venue,” said Schnier, before turning testimony over to new owner Peter Riekert. “There is no live music occurring here. There’s a lot of expensive equipment prohibiting it, and we’re going to be close to a neighborhood.”


This studio would be a boost to business along East 12th Street and it was likely, given how expensive studio time is, that there would be foot traffic and people eating in the neighborhood. Riekert also added that the studio would be willing to donate time to existing churches, providing recording space to produce CDs that could be sold by the churches as a fund-raising effort.


The wounds over the decline of East 12th Street, however, are still deep on two fronts: First, the historic close-knit African-American community is lost, replaced with drugs and prostitution that Rev. Ira Lewis stressed, in his speech to Council, had been introduced to the neighborhood.


Lewis, in a wide-range speech, expressed broad range discontent about East Austin, from the infiltration of drugs from the outside to the loss of a sacred piece of land once dedicated to the work of God to the politicization of East Austin neighborhoods that turned neighbor against neighbor.


Sister Scottie Ivory, Lewis said, had maps from the ‘20s and ‘30s, when the roads in East Austin were dirt roads and African-Americans were told they needed to move east of Interstate 35 if they wanted city utilities.


After decades of sweat and tears and sacrifice, Lewis said, the community is pushed aside, replaced by the City of Austin and the University of Texas. The effort of generations means nothing in East Austin, Lewis said. Lewis, frustrated, said he was contemplating a civil rights suit against the city.


“You are trying to destroy our heritage, my heritage,” said Lewis, a life-long resident of East Austin. “I’m not going to stand by and let it happen.”


Ivory, who lives across the street from the former church, was more emotional than she typically is in testimony before Council, saying her neighborhood was being robbed of its history. Ivory gave a passionate discourse on her youth in a segregated Austin, when she was forced to walk to her first job and wasn’t seated at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Austin.


“We were a rich community,” Ivory said. “We had everything we need, and when you gave (former Austin Revitalization Authority Chief Executive Officer) Byron Marshall the authority to redevelop 11th and 12th streets, I spent numerous hours with him, we all did. We were planning… What did he do? Do you think he did what we wanted him to do? Can we utilize 11th and 12th streets. No, he’s doing what the city told him to do.” Marshall, who led ARA for 10 years, left Austin in July 2009 to become chief administrative officer for Richmond, Va.


Council Member Sheryl Cole stepped in to calm the waters, to acknowledge the respect of East Austin faith communities on Council and to acknowledge the respect that she and many shared for Ivory’s efforts to revive East Austin.


Cole, and then Council Member Randi Shade, however, had to acknowledge that this was an individual zoning case, and not a referendum on the preservation of history in East Austin. The final votes on the case—in favor of the zoning changes and changes to the future land-use map—were 7-0.

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