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Debate over Rainey Street parcel set for Council agenda

Monday, June 24, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

After months of fiery and impassioned debate about the city-owned lot at 64 Rainey Street, the fight flared up again online over the weekend. It appears a group of developers could end up owning the land on which they plan to build a 31-story skyscraper, which is troubling to some Mexican-Americans.

The Mexican American Cultural Center board, MACC supporters and neighbors argue the land is perfect for the center to expand on, that such a building would obscure views of the center, and that another high-rise development would take away from the cultural and historical design of the area.

Late Friday afternoon, a sequence of events involving city leaders quickly coaxed the issue to a new level, possibly paving the way for a group of developers called 70 Rainey Street LP – who own the land at that address – to acquire the adjacent lot at 64 Rainey Street. These lots and the MACC are all part of a nouveau-trendy area of town dotted with old houses-turned-bars, residences, and high-rise multi-use developments just south of downtown near the banks of Lady Bird Lake. 

70 Rainey Street LP attempted to buy 64 Rainey Street from the city for more than $1 million. The MACC board effectively pushed back; at least four times it adopted resolutions emphasizing its commitment to incorporating the lot for center expansion.

In this land-grab back-and-forth, the city has at times displayed a desire to side with the MACC. In October 2012, Austin City Council passed a resolution directing the Parks and Recreation Department to incorporate the land into the master plan for the cultural center, a motion which passed on a 4-3 split.

But at 4:30pm on Friday on the  Facebook pages of Austin Tejano Democrats and Hispanic Advocates Business Leaders of Austin, Council Member Mike Martinez posted that he received a direct phone call from former Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, who requested an item be placed on the City Council agenda to “allow for the conversation and negotiation to take place that would provide a dedicated revenue stream to fully fund the MACC’s completion as well as remove the power lines over the top of the MACC.”

The item would also include direction that the lot at 64 Rainey Street would contain a complete and clear 38-foot setback to allow for any related use to the MACC that the advisory board sees as appropriate, which could be a sculpture garden, history center or open space.

Knowing full well … there will be those who are absolutely opposed to this and some who will support it, I agreed to place it on the agenda with the understanding that the item could be withdrawn, voted against or adopted depending on the details and support of the item,” Martinez wrote. “But I ask that we allow for a full and robust discussion to occur without hyperbole and rhetoric.

Local businessman and activist Paul Saldaña said Martinez called him late Friday with the news that the item would include selling 64 Rainey Street to developers as well as calling for Waller Creek TIF dollars to be directed to fund MACC expansion. Saldaña says he and the MACC community are disheartened by this turn of events.

This latest news obviously is not sitting well with our community,” he said. In response to Martinez’ Facebook post, specifically to Martinez’ request that conversations occur without “hyperbole and rhetoric,” Saldaña wrote, “While that may be the perception to some, it’s the historic perspective and reality that many Mexican-Americans/Chicanos and native East Austinites have lived for over 50 years. And it speaks to their passion and conviction of real life experience that our community has suffered enough at the hands of developers, encroachment and gentrification.”

Andy Ramirez, long-time local businessman, activist and consultant who supports selling the land to the developers, argues the Parks and Recreation Department has no immediate plans to develop or maintain 64 Rainey Street. As a MACC supporter, he says he is also a proponent of having the expansion of the cultural center begin now rather than later. To him, this is a win-win scenario.

I think if there’s a way that by selling this particular parcel it funds the completion of the MACC, then that’s wonderful,” he said. “I’m more of a businessman. I guess it comes down to what would you prefer? To have a lot where there’s no money to do anything with—not even to maintain it and hope that there’s somewhere down the road to fund the MACC—or to fund it now?”

As of publication of this article, the item is not on the agenda for the June 27 city council meeting. It is expected to be posted as an addendum this week with Council Member Martinez and Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole co-sponsoring the item.

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