Friday, June 7, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

MACC board resoundingly rejects high-rise proposals for Rainey Street

For nearly two hours Wednesday night, there was a heated, almost uncomfortable, virtually one-sided debate at the Mexican American Cultural Center board meeting. The Rainey Street developer who attended the meeting absorbed a great deal of disdain from East Austin neighbors determined to block another high-rise in their neighborhood.

An estimated 100 people were in attendance, some wearing T-shirts with ¡La Cultura No Se Vende!  Translation: Our Culture is Not for Sale!

At issue is the potential expansion of the city-operated MACC onto city-owned land at 64 Rainey Street. The lot sits just before the entrance to the center. Next to 64 Rainey Street sits 70 Rainey Street. A group of developers who own that land plan to build a 31-story multi-use high-rise. The group, called 70 Rainey Street LP, attempted to buy the 64 Rainey Street lot from the city but MACC board members and neighborhood supporters fought them, claiming the land should be reserved for the MACC. The board has adopted resolutions four times to date – including an action Wednesday night – emphasizing its commitment to incorporating the 64 Rainey Street lot for future expansion.

In October 2012, Austin City Council passed a resolution directing the Parks and Recreation Department to incorporate the land at 64 Rainey Street into the master plan for the Mexican-American Cultural Center, a motion which passed on a 4-3 split.

But the developers are continuing to make their pitch.

Local consultant Andrew Ramirez presented to the MACC board what he and the 70 Rainey Street LP called a “win-win” development concept. The idea consists of a 31-story high-rise at the corner of Rainey and River streets. Visitors to the MACC would pass the proposed building on their right as they enter the center’s parking lot, but opponents of the development argue that any high-rise development at this location would obstruct views of the MACC.

 

The developers argue that their concept would actually enhance the current view. The design allows for a café and gallery on the first floor with a covered open porch and 20-foot-high portal facing River Street at the entrance to the building. It would act as a walkway in front of the building leading to the MACC. There would be a lighted fountain with a statue on River Street in front of the center and the proposed building. And the MACC could use what Ramirez called the “Grand porch” for exhibits, musicians, or whatever else the board desires.

 

In addition, developers would agree to provide the MACC with retail commercial space within the building rent-free for 20 years. Money accrued during the use of the space would go directly to the MACC board. Furthermore, the MACC could stand to get hundreds of thousands from the developer and the city which would go toward art installations, fountains, statues, and landscaping. Developers would reserve five percent of housing in the building for low-to-moderate income leasers.

 

MACC board members and supporters were overwhelmingly unimpressed.

 

One supporter referred to the “blood, sweat and tears that have gone into developing (the MACC).”

 

Ultimately, the board members – including Cassie Smith, who cried when sharing how the MACC and the neighborhood welcomed her five years ago – rejected the plan and reaffirmed their resolve to claim 64 Rainey Street as their own.

 

Don Reese, local developer and officer of 70 Rainey Street LP, had no comment after the presentation. But, attorney Nikelle Meade, who represents the group, said she wasn’t surprised by the neighbors’ reaction.

 

“We hear the concern,” she said. “I think what got lost in the conversation was that Mr. Ramirez talked about a community space, a space where people can gather. I think the proposal he made addressed a lot of the concerns. It just got lost in the conversation.”

 

Juan Oyervides, MACC board chair said the decision was both a difficult and emotional one while local businessman and activist Paul Saldaña said he wasn’t worried about losing ground. “We were pretty hopeful that the board would be supporting and reaffirming their previous resolutions,” he said, “so we’re happy with the end result.”

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