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Urban Board a no-show for meeting with Planning Commission

Friday, July 29, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

A meeting between the Planning Commission and the Urban Renewal Board, more than two years in the making, failed to materialize last week since there is currently no strategy for East 12th Street.


The non-meeting meeting was placed on the agenda for the Neighborhood Plan Committee of the Planning Commission last Wednesday night, at the behest of long-time URB Chair Ben Sifuentes, Chair Dave Sullivan told his fellow committee members. In recent months, however, the elderly Sifuentes said he is confused as to why the Planning Commission wanted such a meeting.


But it was Sandra Harkins of Neighborhood Housing and Community Development who delivered apologies to the Planning Commission’s Neighborhood Plan committee for the URB’s no-show at a meeting intended to open up the dialogue on the development of East 12th Street.


“Until just a few weeks ago, we only had four members,” Harkins said of the URB, adding that two new members just joined the board. “The city also is under an interim agreement, and by Oct. 1, we should have a full agreement on their rules and responsibilities in the redevelopment efforts of the area. The board, at this time, is not in a position to make statements, such as what is their goals and vision are for revitalizing the 12th Street corridor area.”


Such a statement underlines just how hobbled the Urban Renewal Agency, and its Urban Renewal Board, have been in recent months. The lapse of the tri-party agreement has left the board in a type of limbo, as well as a blow-up between Sifuentes and Vice Chair Sean Garretson, who eventually departed the board.


In recent months, until various appointees were added, the Urban Renewal Board has found it difficult to meet a quorum for its monthly meetings, much less to define a new direction on East 12th Street. A market study on East 12th Street, by an outside consultant, will go to Council for approval this week.


What is clear now is that the resources of the Urban Renewal Agency of the City of Austin, unlike the now-departed tri-party partner Austin Revitalization Authority, are limited. The agency has no money or collateral for ongoing development efforts, as Harkins noted in her presentation last week.


That, of course, could make an alliance with the Planning Commission more valuable, Sullivan pointed out. The Planning Commission’s Capital Improvement Project committee deals directly with recommendations on infrastructure improvement, which could be a critical key to East 12th Street’s success.


Sullivan said the East 12th Street corridor predicament was more of incentive, than a deterrent, to participation by the Planning Commission and its committees.


East Austin neighborhood associations have been in conflict with Austin’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department on a number of issues in recent months, including the demolition of homes in the Olive-Juniper Street area and supportive housing efforts at the Marshall Apartments.


OCEAN neighborhood president Stan Strickland and Swede Hill President Tracy Witte, who both spoke at last week’s meeting, were asked for a statement after the session on just what the expectations were regarding East 12th Street development:


Among other things, OCEAN neighborhoods primarily expect the Urban Renewal Board and the city to put forth a serious effort to deliver comprehensive infrastructure and streetscape improvements for East 12th Street, from I-35 to Poquito, and substantially incentivize and facilitate private sector development of the desired commercial mixed-use vision that the Central East Austin community loudly and clearly spelled out in our 1999 Urban Renewal Plan, amendments and Neighborhood Conservation and Combining District,” they wrote.


This is, of course, where the neighborhood associations and the city will see at least one of their conflicts. The city, with few developers knocking at its door, sees no potential redevelopment along East 12th Street without a re-working of their strategy for the major arterial corridor and its development initiatives. OCEAN, on the other hand, still considers the 11-year-old plan to be viable.


Complicating the matter of the whole redevelopment process, of course, is that OCEAN is part of gentrification of East Austin. The original intent of the revitalization of East 11th and 12th streets was to correct the historical wrongs against long-standing endemic segregation. But the newly gentrified neighborhood associations of East Austin, with their own desires and wishes, have been far from historically disenfranchised or traditionally segregated.


Which leads to the question as to whether these neighborhoods have any more or less standing because they may now be populated with those in far from impoverished income bracket than the East Side’s traditional African-American neighborhoods. Redevelopment of the two corridors has been underwritten with federal funds intended to address disenfranchisement.


In the meantime, Harkins said the market study would be well underway by Sept. 30, and a new agreement should be in place by Oct. 1, a framework for a new development strategy and new talks.

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