Friday, September 6, 2013 by Charlotte Moore

MACC Board takes heat from constituents over pending land deal

The advisory board for the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center received a slight verbal lashing from two community activists at its meeting Wednesday night, a result of rising frustration over the fate of a prime parcel of city-owned land at 64 Rainey Street.

A group of developers called 70 Rainey Street LP has offered the city more than $1 million for the lot and have plans to build a 30-story business and residential tower on it.

But board members and supporters of the city-owned center have for months successfully blocked that plan. They want Austin leaders to preserve the land for the public and for future building expansion.

“I think that this board needs to realize that it’s the board’s responsibility to take care of this issue,” said long-time Austin community leader and MACC supporter Martha Cotera who was instrumental in the lengthy push to prompt the city to build the center. “As a community we really have our hands tied unless you are actively doing something as a board to resolve this issue.”

The area – at historic points predominately white, then predominately Mexican American – has in recent years become one a prime neighborhood for redevelopment. Trendy houses-turned-bars have sprung up on Rainey Street near the banks of Lady Bird Lake just south of downtown Austin. At least two other high-rise complexes are in the vicinity with the promise of more development to come.

The MACC Advisory Board has five times drafted and adopted resolutions stressing its commitment to fight to preserve the land for public use.

Local politico and MACC supporter Paul Saldaña had stern words for the board.

“Look what the electric utility commission just did,” he said, referring to the abrupt resignation of commission members. (See In Fact Daily, June 18) “You’ve adopted five resolutions and the Council’s not doing anything. If they’re not going to hear you, then walk off. Why are you here? Why are we all here, even having a meeting? If I were in your shoes, I would be pissed off. I would be furious.”

Saldaña finished his statement by explaining his frustration is not with the board, but with City Council.

Shelby Alexander, a recently hired executive assistant to Council Member Mike Martinez, attended the meeting and told the group she was there to listen and to relay concerns to her superior.

Shelby, we’re tired of getting bull**** responses,” Saldaña said. “Mike needs to come to this meeting. We’re tired of talking. We need him to take action. He’s running for mayor, he needs to act.”

Saldaña later told In Fact Daily many MACC supporters were insulted that Martinez sent a “new staffer to the meeting who clearly lacked the historical and cultural heritage perspective and context of our concerns.”

Martinez responded in an email, saying his staff is fully capable of representing his office and providing and relaying information.

“Our office has been nothing other than completely responsive to Paul and any other members of the community that have asked us about this issue,” Martinez wrote Thursday afternoon. “In June, my staff and I went to a widely attended HABLA Platica meeting at Paul Saldaña’s request specifically to discuss this issue, and welcomed questions from all in attendance. We responded to concerns there as thoroughly as possible, and let folks know they’re welcome to reach out to us with follow-up questions at any time.

Martinez and his fellow Council members are divided on what to do with 64 Rainey Street. In October 2012, 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. Martinez made the motion.

Since then, there has been no decision about what to do with the land. For the time being, it appears the lot is off limits to anyone.

The property is currently being used for the construction of the Waller Creek tunnel,” Martinez said. “It is owned by our Public Works Department. Once the tunnel project is complete, council has the option to direct staff to transfer the property to PARD. If we did so now, we would not be in compliance with state law regarding use of dedicated parkland.”

Saldaña said this is a “stalling tactic.”

Many members of our Latino community remain very disappointed with Martinez and his lack of leadership and willingness to carry specific policy issues that continue to have a negative impact on our quality of life,” he said.

Meanwhile, the center’s board is expecting fiscal year 2014 funding from the city in the amount of $904,594. In addition, the board is asking for $243,198 to fund an after-school, culturally-based program for east Austin Latino youth.

Board Chair Juan Oyervides said he understands the frustration regarding the Rainey Street lot, but beyond adopting resolutions, there is little the board can do.

“We are as frustrated,” he said. “But, we’re also optimistic that the city will recognize what we’ve been recommending for several months now. The most we can do is to make our recommendations to Council.”

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