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Urban Renewal Agency unable to stop apartment revitalization project

Wednesday, November 24, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

A special called meeting of the Urban Renewal Agency to address concerns about a proposed plan to revitalize the Marshall Apartments on East 12th Street ended with far more fatalism than it began Monday night. By the end of the three-hour session it was clear not only that the agency can’t affect the Marshall project but that its mandate as a whole may be in question.

 

The agency and city staff arranged the special called meeting after several property owners on the east side came out against the Marshall revitalization plan last week. Under that proposed plan, Summit Housing Partners and Caritas of Austin have offered to buy the complex for approximately $2.2 million, renovate it, and provide social services to its tenants. They would be eligible for city assistance for the purchase if they convert 20 of the property’s 100 units into permanent supportive housing.

 

The city’s Permanent Supportive Housing Strategy, which was approved on March 25 by the City Council, defines “permanent supportive housing” as “affordable housing linked to a range of support services that enable tenants, especially the homeless, to live independently …” and targets households earning less than 30 percent of Area Median Income.

 

Many living in PSH are formerly homeless and have histories of substance abuse.

 

Many residents of the area, concerned about high crime rates and the proximity of Marshall to what some citizens have called an “open-air drug market” at 12th and Chicon streets, have protested against the inclusion of permanent supportive housing in the revitalization plan. At Monday’s meeting, speakers voiced their concerns about placing former addicts in such a volatile environment.

 

They weren’t able to vent their frustrations, however, until agency Chair Ben Sifuentes had confronted them with the sobering news that the Urban Renewal Agency has no authority to affect or even voice its opinion about a project such as the renovation.

 

Sifuentes, who was not at last week’s meeting, said, “This is not within the purview of the Urban Renewal Agency. This agency is not the agency you should be complaining to. I don’t think we can do anything for this group. We can’t vote against this project. It’s against the law.”

 

Jerry Rusthoven of the city’s Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department was on hand to confirm Sifuentes’ claim. Rusthoven told the agency that since the Marshall property is zoned multi-family, and since permanent supportive housing is not a zoning category, the only way to stop the project from going through would be to initiate a code amendment through the City Council, create a permanent supportive housing use designation, and finally assign the property a designation that doesn’t permit permanent supportive housing.  

 

Short of that, Rusthoven said, the agency doesn’t have the power to change or protest the project.

 

Charles Zech, special counsel to the agency, went into greater detail. “This is a private property zoned for a particular use,” he said. “The use is established in the zoning, so the agency has no project approval authority. The Urban Renewal Agency does not have the power to approve and amend urban renewal plans or hold public hearings related to those plans.”

 

Many in the audience were visibly frustrated by the agency’s inability to affect the outcome of the project. Stan Strickland, president of the Robinson Hill Neighborhood Association, said, “We want a recommendation from you to the city on this. We expect you to weigh in.”

 

One citizen even went so far as to read from the Urban Renewal Plan to point out that the agency is allowed to exercise zoning power, but Zech assured the crowd that isn’t the case.

 

“This body does not have zoning authority; it is not even within the scope of the body to review general zoning decisions,” he said. “What you’re doing is asking them to change the project, which they can’t do.”

 

Zech went on to say that, since the dissolution of the tri-party agreement between the agency, the city, and the Austin Revitalization Authority (ARA) in September, the Urban Renewal Agency’s powers and responsibilities as a whole are up in the air.  

 

“This body is in flux since the tri-party agreement was dissolved,” he said. “We are currently going through the process of determining what the role of this board is going to be.”

 

This was news to Tracy Witte, president of the Swede Hill Neighborhood Association, who spoke against the Marshall Arms plan. “(Zech) basically admitted that since the city dropped the ARA and there’s only a temporary memorandum of understanding between the city and the Urban Renewal Agency, that memorandum doesn’t account for the function ARA used to perform — initiating changes to the plan,” Witte told In Fact Daily.

 

“So they basically left property owners without remedy to do anything about the land-use controls that govern their property. That sounds to me like dereliction of duty. Don’t they care that the people who own property along 11th and 12th streets won’t have any recourse?”

 

Witte also said that she plans to file an injunction against the city to stop approval of the project. “This is clearly just about advancing the permanent supportive housing strategy and putting it all in East Austin,” she said. She said that because permanent supportive housing is just a type of residential use, and not its own zoning category, PSH could conceivably be placed in any property zoned multifamily 3 or 4.

 

“I think it would come as quite a surprise to neighborhoods west of I-35 that Caritas or anyone else could move 20-30 supportive housing candidates into any large property zoned multifamily without discussion,” Witte said. “I think we’d be having a much bigger discussion about this if it were happening in west Austin.”

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