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Urban Board agrees to study future uses for Block 18

Wednesday, April 20, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

The Urban Renewal Board, mired in a number of months of inactivity and low on members, did manage a discussion Monday night that could move the 1100 block of East 11th Street (Block 18) forward toward a temporary use.

 

The discussion could have been touchy. Block 18, home to the East Room music venue, was a failed effort of the Austin Revitalization Authority. Efforts to jump start discussion with the community were spearheaded by then-Vice Chair Sean Garretson, who eventually quit the Urban Renewal Board in frustration. Three slots on the seven-member URB still remain unfilled and the city is notifying the public of the openings.

 

Chair Ben Sifuentes, however, was happy to assure community members that he had no axe to grind over the future of the block.

 

“I don’t have to tell anybody we’re in difficult times right now, very, very difficult times. It’s bad and it’s going to get worse,” Sifuentes told the audience. “I promise you, this board is in no way against anything that’s being proposed and never has been. So go to it. How could we possible stand in your way?”

 

Howard McMillan and Lisa Byrd, who leased the performance space on Block 18 as DiverseWorks, are eager to expand the public use of the block, possibly erecting a fence so the unused public space could be “accessible and useful.”

 

McMillan did not back away from the potential awkward moment with Sifuentes. Stakeholders planned, and that included Gerretsen.

 

“Sean’s not here anymore, but we made good progress visioning something and putting it down,” McMillan told the commission. “We just need to find some collateral support to do these things. No office building is going to be on that lot any time in the next 10 years.”

 

Byrd underlined the commitment to find some use in the immediate future.

 

“We want it to be an asset to the community,” Byrd said.

 

Architect Tom Hatch drew some preliminary pictures for the block, although all agreed no one was married to a particular plan. Stan Strickland of the Robertson Hill Neighborhood Association said he approved of the plans he saw briefly, although it had yet to be viewed by the neighborhood association.

 

“We welcome an interim improvement to allow the neighborhood to get the most use out of it,” Strickland said. “I know the neighborhood is very supportive of the efforts of Mr. McMillan in the neighborhood.”

 

McMillan was not counting on city funding, and Sifuentes said the board had no funding to offer. Board member Mike Clark Madison called for city staff to review any potential interim uses that could be considered on the site, given current zoning, which Harkins agreed to do. Harkins noted, however, that the block had been purchased with local funds, which means that local and federal approval would be needed for significant changes in use.

 

All of this likely will occur before the market study of the area is completed. With little opposition to an interim use plan, Harkins agreed to draft some potential language on an agreement for an interim use.

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