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Cultural center board members critical of proposed sale of city parcel

Friday, October 5, 2012 by Elizabeth Pagano

The board of the Emma Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center had tough questions for city staffers on Thursday night about why they were left out of the loop on the sale of an adjacent parcel of city-owned land.

 

Board members asked that City Council put a stop to the sale of the quarter-acre property at 64 Rainey Street, which, if approved, could net the city as much as $1.2 million.

 

Former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, widower of the woman for whom the building was named, had an emotional plea for the board.

 

“There are some things that are more valued than money and progress, and that is our history and our culture,” Barrientos said. “We fought for this building to provide a semblance of the history of our state, a state where some of us Tejanos were here way before the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock. I think it would be a travesty to have this, albeit beautiful building, cover up part of what we Americans stand for.”

 

The board held a special-called meeting to address the sale of the property and its development with the potential buyer of the land, the 70 Rainey Street Partnership, and city staff.

 

Board members expressed surprise about the city’s pending sale of the property.

 

“I am on the board, and the way that I found out about it was that I saw it in the paper,” said Board Member Sylvia Orozco. “How did it even get to that point? How did it get to the paper when we’re right there? How did it get to that point when we, as a board, at the same time we are doing a parking study that we are paying for – that the city is paying for – where we are studying that parcel of land for parking. We’re paying $50,000 out of bond money to study your land.”

 

The board had particularly tough questions for Parks and Recreation Director Sara Hensley about why they were never consulted or told about the pending sale.

 

Hensley told the board that she did speak up about the land being used to solve parking problems at MACC, and called herself a “skunk at the picnic” that delayed the whole process. She added that she tried to include a demand that parking be built on the land that was ultimately unsuccessful. Hensley said that the discovery that it would cost $500,000 to $750,000 to move a wastewater line and the cost of the land made it unaffordable for her department.

 

“Where it went was not our decision,” said Hensley. “All I can tell you is that I red-flagged it.”

 

“You delayed, but that delay did not include consulting us,” said Board Member Cassie Smith.

 

Hensley said that she took the charge of looking for parking seriously, and if there was a breakdown in communication she would take full responsibility for that.

 

Smith said, “I understand that this is an economic transaction, and it’s business … but there are also huge cultural factors. I think that’s a place where the board can give a lot of direction.”

 

Many of the speakers who gathered in Council Chambers bearing signs that read “La Cultura No Se Vende” (Culture is not for sale) hit this note hard, with several suggesting that the area around the MACC be declared a cultural district.

 

Paul Saldaña said that he was baffled that staffers did not recognize the history of the area, and showed a video of the Los Elementos mural being destroyed by a wrecking ball in 1971. The mural once sat on the site of what is now an IHOP restaurant, at the entrance of Rainey Street.

 

70 Rainey Street Partner Donald Reese told the board that while he didn’t yet have exact plans for the parcel, but plans call for constructing a building taller than three or four stories. He explained that the property was zoned Central Business District, priced accordingly, and intended to be developed as such.

 

He extended an invitation for the MACC board to select an artist of their choosing for an entrance piece, and offered the “seed money” to contract an artist for the piece, if his group acquires 64 Rainey.

 

MACC architect Jamie Beaman also spoke at the meeting, saying building on the parcel would be a “major mistake.”

 

“It’s very difficult for me to come up here, because working for developers is my livelihood. But I have to say that I am against the sale of this property,” said Beaman. “The MACC was designed as a piece of art. … And the approach to the MACC was one of the more important issues in the overall design.”

 

City Council is slated to consider the sale of the Rainey property at next week’s meeting.

 

Staffers have suggested that Council has four potential decisions to make. The first would exchange the property for $100,000 cash and 30 parking spaces in a yet-to-be-developed garage that would use 64 Rainey as part of its development; the second would earn the city $400,000 and 20 spaces; the third would provide no parking spaces and the city could sell the land for $1.2 million. Finally, the city could choose not to sell the land, and keep it as is.

 

Lauraine Rizer, division manager of Real Estate Services, told MACC board members that city staffers were intensely focused on creating more parking in the area.

 

“In all the meetings that I have been involved in, the sentiment was that it was really more of excitement because we thought we made a big headway in stopping your problems,” Rizer said. “It was never a malicious thing. So I think that somehow we got so focused on fixing that issue, we heard it so much, that we got thinking that it was really doing something great for you guys. The only thing that I knew was that you needed parking.”

 

Smith said, “I know that it seems like everyone was trying to do us a favor by pursuing parking. But there is a lack of awareness about the cultural needs of the center and the appearance of the center and community involvement in the center. And I don’t think any of those things are worth a 30-space parking exchange.”

 

The board reaffirmed a June 16 resolution to acquire the parcel for MACC and recommend that City Council not sell the parcel in a 4-0 vote. Board Members Rossana Barrios, Marisa Limon and David Carroll were absent.

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