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Residents express anger at East 11th-12th Street consultants

Monday, September 26, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

A group of East Side residents offered a strong dose of anger at a meeting last week towards the consulting team hired to address a long-term strategy for East 11th and East 12th streets.


Shuronda Robinson, who facilitated the discussion, admitted she expected some level of frustration during the first community dialogue on how to move forward to get development restarted, especially along the East 12th Street corridor.


The meeting was held last Wednesday at the Doubletree Hotel on I-35 to introduce stakeholders to the process and the consulting team. Additional meetings are planned over the next few weeks.


Michael Young, who owns business property near the intersection of 12th and Navasota streets, made that apparent, as he attacked lead consultant Darin Smith, accusing him of lying when he said he had talked to some along the E 12th Street corridor in the few days since the project began.


“This is not easy. I want to know what you’re going to do for us,” Young said. “We’ve been before City Council. We’ve lobbied City Council members many times on this. And do you know what happens? Nothing. Nothing.”


Both Robinson and Smith stressed to the room of 50 or so East Side residents that the point of this meeting – a first meeting – was not to tell the community what the plans were. It was to start gathering information to come up with a strategy to take the existing plan and move it forward.


“We’re not reopening the overall vision for this area. We have a pretty good consensus for a long time on the type of development,” Smith said. “The general vision for this place is not going to be reopened as part of our scope.”


Both corridors were envisioned for mixed-use construction, Robinson said. East 11th Street had slightly taller buildings, with an additional emphasis on cultural arts and music venues. The East 12th Street corridor was less intense, with lower-scale buildings and more attention to residential uses.


The first comprehensive plan for the two corridors was drawn up in 1999. In the intervening years, some city-backed development has happened along East 11th Street but little along East 12th Street, which still needs significant infrastructure upgrades when it comes to electricity and water lines.


That was the point that Stan Strickland, president of the Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods, wanted to stress with the group. Speaking directly after Young, Strickland quipped,” Welcome to our frustration.” Then he tried to steer the conversation back to its goal: what the corridors needed to thrive.


“We need whatever you do to create the political will and the money to get the infrastructure developed on 12th Street,” Strickland said. “We need incentives to bring development in because we’ve had no real success in attracting people who are serious about putting in businesses up and down 12th Street.”


Most important, the neighborhoods needed to get the cost of infrastructure into the 2012 bond issue, or it might never get done, Strickland said. Already, the Austin Neighborhoods Council intends to pass a resolution at its next meeting, supporting a proposal to put at least $20 million into the 2012 to get infrastructure along East 12th Street done, so the corridor can be ready for development.


Robinson quizzed audience members about the amount and asked whether a professional assessment by the consulting team might not be a better number to move forward. Strickland said the $20 million was the neighborhoods’ estimate of what it would take to get the corridor prepared.


Some in the audience, like Steve Mann, have waited for years to get their property on the market and sold. His family has waited 10 years; they weren’t interested in waiting another 10 before seeing action.


Asked what he wanted to see, Mann said simply: “Robert Mueller. If they can do it there, they can do it anywhere, if they so desire.”


That drew applause from the audience, although another speaker said she wanted a corridor that preserved small African-American businesses rather than one that looked like the large-scale master-planned Mueller development.


Robinson noted that a number of members on the East 11th/East 12th Street team actually were members of the Mueller team, including Smith and urban planners Jana McCann and Jim Adams. Laura Toupes of the Urban Design Group, who has worked on a number of city projects, will assess infrastructure needs.


Not all the news at the meeting was bad. Sean Garretsen, most recently of the Urban Renewal Board, told the group his East 12th Street Partners had closed on the property next to the Mann family’s former hair salon.


“We plan to open up a food court with Hoover’s,” Garretsen said. “We’re hoping to open next Friday or the next week. I think you guys are going to love it. It’s going to be cool food trailers, and it’s going to be very interesting.”


Garretsen, who has a number of other properties under contract in the corridor, agreed that infrastructure was a problem. He urged the consultants to bring the city’s Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Department into the mix, and also stressed the need to address public safety in the corridor.


A number of community meetings will be held on the strategy, as well as various one-on-one interviews. A draft strategy should be ready for debate and discussion in December, to go to Council in January.

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