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Sale of city-owned Rainey Street property on hold

Tuesday, October 16, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

Those members of the city’s Mexican-American community worried about the sale of 64 Rainey Street adjacent to the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican-American Cultural Center convinced Council to give up the idea of the sale at last week’s Council meeting. Instead, they directed the Parks and Recreation Department to return with options to incorporate the land into the master plan for the MACC.


The MACC’s advisory committee recently dropped a red flag on the sale of the property, which is adjacent to the cultural center at the south end of Rainey Street. The fact that four options ended up on the final Council agenda was an indication of how conflicted Council members were over the future of the property.


Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole saw the property as one more highly prized piece of land that could be incorporated into the Waller Creek tax-increment finance district. Cole, who has championed the Waller Creek tunnel, made one last-ditch effort to amend her proposal to sell the property outright for $1.2 million. Long term, a portion of city and county property taxes would go to retire the debt on the Waller Creek tunnel project.


Cole suggested that $200,000 be set aside to fund priorities in the Hispanic quality of life study. Everyone would be a winner, she said.


“I don’t believe we need to make two difficult choices,” Cole said.


However, the opponents, led by Paul Saldaña and MACC Chair Juan Oyervides, saw the sale of the property as more than just revenue for the city or for constructing parking spaces, the benefit of two other options on the agenda.


“We’re not talking about a parking lot,” Saldaña said. “To us, it’s very important because this was the first Mexican-American neighborhood recognized by the city. It’s important that you put this in the context of our history, as painful and as difficult and as challenging as it was for all of us.”


That history includes the displacement of the original segregated neighborhood downtown on and around Brush Square known as Little Mexico. Brush Square was once known as Mexican Park, Saldaña said.


The construction of the MACC was the resolution of a fight around the preservation of the site of Juarez-Lincoln University, the community’s one-time cultural center before the federal government decided to sell the property and dismantle the cultural programs. An IHOP restaurant and parking lot now sit on the site.


Alicia Perez, the former executive manager of Travis County’s administrative operations, was critical of the decision to sell the land, noting that such insensitivity might be the result of a lack of Latinos in leadership positions.


“Please make no mistake that this item is very important to the Mexican-American community,” Perez said. “It would be akin to saying you were going to build a parking lot in front of hallowed ground in terms of the MACC being an iconic building and one that represents the best in our community.”


Cole, who called for the sale of the land, had an ally in Council Member Chris Riley, who said he respected the cultural values of the community but that holding the land for an expanded driveway for the MACC would be contrary to the MACC’s master plan and the plan for Rainey Street.


“This is not some interloper who is proposing something that is foreign to the neighborhood,” Riley said. “This is exactly what was envisioned when Rainey Street was re-zoned. I’m not sure a double-wide driveway is going to complement that vision and make this area more of a draw.”


Riley also noted that the Rainey Street area was “park rich” and that he would have hard time justifying even more parkland at the expense of money that could provide additional amenities in other areas of the city.


“There are plenty of areas that would love to get infill parks,” Riley said.


Council Member Mike Martinez made the motion to direct the Parks and Recreation Department to incorporate the land into the master plan for the Mexican-American Cultural Center.


Cole’s substitute motion to sell the property for $1.2 million failed on a 3-4 vote, with Mayor Lee Leffingwell, Martinez, Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo voting against the motion.


Morrison, who put the alternative on the agenda with Martinez, said the preservation of culture and the financial benefits both were city priorities. Tovo said the parking issues could be resolved through other measures.


Martinez’s motion passed on the same 4-3 split.

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