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Board ponders DiverseArts’ plans for East 11th Street

Tuesday, August 23, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

With no developers in sight, a local arts organization looks to find a better use for the block along East 11th Street that contains the Victory Grill.


Harold McMillan of the non-profit DiverseArts Culture Works wants the Urban Renewal Board to agree to more public use of portions of the city-owned property known as Block 18.


Block 18, as it’s currently configured in the 1100 block of East 11th Street, is somewhat fragmented. To the west, closest to Waller Street, are the two entertainment venues: the Victory Grill and the East Room.


Under the original tri-party agreement, the Austin Revitalization Authority intended to expand the East Room and redevelop the balance of the block. The idea was to put mixed-use commercial space, and potential underground parking, along East 11th Street and low-income residential units along Juniper Street.


But now the Austin Revitalization Authority is no longer in the picture, and the Urban Renewal Agency has no money to sink into redeveloping the block. In the meantime, McMillan has signed a temporary use agreement with the board to create public events such as Fourth Fridays, which have focused on bringing arts events into the neighborhood.


Now, McMillan sees a more permanent open space for music and art exhibits, with a community garden and possibly some food and drink sales. He explains it as a solution while the area is awaiting redevelopment.


“This is a destination in and of itself, with exhibits to appreciate and learn from, whether there is a live band or a plan or a film screening going on or night. We could have a sculpture garden, a visual arts garden, and you would come and see the new exhibit, and while you’re there you get something to eat or drink,” said McMillan, describing the space. “Hopefully, there will be grass there again, so people can spread blankets and this could be this public green space.”


That’s McMillan’s vision, and he’s invested his time in setting up East Side social events, but those events don’t exactly mesh with current plans for the block. To set up such a use, planner Sandra Harkins told the Urban Renewal Board last week, likely would require a conditional overlay on top of current zoning and possibly a request for proposals allowing all interested parties to bid on the use of the block.


McMillan was not exactly thrilled with the idea of competing to use the block. His temporary use arrangement currently does not involve paying the city.


“We feel like we have poured blood, sweet and tears into this land, so if going through the mental and intellectual exercise to do this planning gets led out to a bid, we might have to withdraw the request,” McMillan said. “This is not about making money. It’s about investing in our community. I don’t really want to do the work and then hand it off to somebody else.”


Nor did Harkins necessarily view the installation of art, even for three to five years, to be a temporary use on the property.


“If we’re going to use this site on a permanent basis, with permanent artifacts, then that is a permanent use,” Harkins noted.


Chair Andrew Bucknall expressed his doubts about tackling a zoning overlay on the property. Such a choice, even temporary, smacked of spot zoning.


“I don’t think that’s really the way we want to go,” Bucknall said.


Nor did the area’s Neighborhood Conservation Combining District foresee such a use for the East 11th Street corridor, Harkins said. A conditional overlay, if used, would still maintain the possibility of proposed long-term redevelopment, while adding the conditional overlay for community recreational, or CR, use.


McMillan did not ask for funding, per se, but he did ask for the board’s endorsement, either through the pursuit of additional uses on the property or a revised agreement between the board and the non-profit.


Vice Chair Mike Clark-Madison speculated such an agreement would certainly necessitate a firmer contract between the board and DiverseArts. Harkins noted that if money was going to be made on the property – property bought with federal funds – then there certainly needed to be a more accurate accounting of revenue, reported to the city on a quarterly basis.


Former chair Ben Sifuentes called a revised agreement with DiverseArts, and possible change in direction, to be “a slippery slope.” He called for more community dialogue, with stakeholders who had been involved earlier in the process, before the board took a vote on the issue.


The DiverseArts Temporary Use Agreement will be back on the agenda for discussion next month.


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