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Eastside residents seek grocery store on city-owned land

Friday, September 21, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

Council may have granted the Urban Renewal Board plenty of power, but it’s still uncertain whether the members can conjure up an Eastside grocery store.


The idea of putting two city-owned parcels on East 12th Street on the market arose earlier this summer, when the Department of Housing and Urban Development demanded the city’s Urban Renewal Agency either develop the lots or cough up $120,000 in funding. Austin City Council made HUD whole, and the intention now appears to issue a request for proposals (RFPs) to attract bids for development on the city-owned tracts in the 1100 block and 1300 block of E 12th Street.


That’s different from putting the land up for auction or sale, and it gives the Urban Renewal Board some control over what kind development it wants to see. Neighbors in Swede Hill, however, have no doubt what they want: a grocery store.


Toria English, the new president of the Swede Hill Neighborhood Association, said many residents don’t have the means to drive to a well-stocked grocery store; the closest one is about two miles away, the H-E-B at 2701 East 7th Street at Pleasant Valley Road.


“I think about all the people in our neighborhood who don’t have cars,” English said. “I think about our area and how people are waiting at the bus stop to get to all those grocery stores. It would be great to be able to walk a mile to a mid-sized grocery store versus some of the smaller grocery stores.”


Resident Kristopher Bowen, who would like to see a small organic grocery store in the neighborhood, also addressed the board. He asked that the city’s request for proposals for the two tracts be separated and that the points in a matrix be weighted towards a mid-sized grocery store on what is known as Tract 5.


Commissioners went back and forth on whether the matrix should be re-weighted for a grocery store. Darwin McKee said he would hate to give more points to a grocery store if store chains had no interest in coming into the neighborhood.


“What I am more concerned about is if someone wants to develop a tract, I want to give them the greatest flexibility possible,” McKee said. “They want to know, ‘Will this market make me money?’ And if a grocery store won’t do that, I don’t want to weigh the matrix so that no one can overcome that advantage. I want to be sure that’s exactly what we want to do.”


The lot in question, however, is small, only about 30,000 square feet. And a 24,000 square-foot grocery store would require almost 60 parking spaces.


English argued that mixed-use development was common in her former neighborhood in San Francisco. Put in the right incentives, and a developer might be willing to put in a first-floor grocery store with residential units on top.


That would be, of course, if the city had any money to lure a developer to East Austin. In the post-Domain world of the City Council, it’s unlikely incentives would be put on the table for retail, or any other type of development, in East Austin. Instead, commissioners agreed federal sources such as community development grants or federal tax credits, might be a more likely source of income.


Sean Garretson, who leads a group likely to bid on both properties, even though they are not adjacent, urged the commission to work with all city departments to find ways to draw development of the area.


“They need to bring in the Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Office,” Garretson said after he addressed the board. “That’s what they do for a living.”


Commissioner Mike Clark-Madison, who made the motions at the end of the meeting, simply wanted to move the process forward. He suggested possibly extending the time period for the RFP to do some more research on the area.


“I’ve only waited a dozen years to see something happen,” joked Clark-Madison, who served on the team that put the neighborhood plan together 12 years ago. “What’s another couple of months?”


Clark-Madison made two motions: First, to put both lots out for an RFP and give the developer the option to bid on one or both of them. He also adjusted some aspects of the 160-point matrix: 5 more points for a grocery store; 5 fewer points for affordable housing; and deleting a requirement for community parking.


Saundra Kirk, the newest member of the board, argued the area probably was ripe for a grocery store. Others agreed, but said the location for the grocery store would likely be the site of the former Huston-Tillotson College on the Interstate 35 feeder road, where a credit union, bingo hall, restaurant and CVS pharmacy now sit.


Clark-Madison, on the other hand, was not inclined to think that the current market would draw a grocery store, even though a future market might. His colleague Gary Smith said whatever incentives might be available should be fully defined.


In his second motion, Clark-Madison asked that department staff contact other city departments to come up with some answer, or mini-market study, as to whether a grocery store was feasible anywhere in the corridor.


RFPs on the two properties are unlikely to be posted in October or November, said Regina Copic, who handles real estate deals for the city’s Neighborhood Housing and Community Development department. The RFPs could be on the market for up to six months, but probably no less than three months, Clark-Madison said.

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