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Council approves fund to preserve heritage of Rainey Street District

Tuesday, October 29, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano

Though they ultimately voted unanimously to create a Rainey Street District Fund from collection of development fees, it took at fair amount of bickering for City Council members to get there last week. It remains to be seen exactly how much money will go into the fund, but that was only a part of the disagreement.


The scuffle took place over a parcel of land that will soon be home to the Fairmount Hotel. Citing concerns over the potential negative impact to the Waller Creek Fund, Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole tried but failed to exclude that parcel from the basis of the fund.


Initially, Cole asked for a postponement until Council’s Nov. 7 meeting, saying she had only just received a map of the proposed district and could use the extra time to work with staff on proposed boundaries for the Rainey Street district.


Though the postponement passed in a voted of 6-1, with only Council Member Mike Martinez voting in opposition, Cole later put the item back on the table for discussion. Evidently, she had learned that a postponement would jeopardize plans to move and preserve six Rainey Street homes slated for removal and re-purposing as affordable housing.


Martinez explained that the fund, once established, would serve two purposes. In addition to the preservation efforts, Martinez said the fund would create a program to “preserve and recognize the history and heritage of Rainey Street, which has historically been a Hispanic neighborhood, but obviously is no longer that because of the redevelopment.”


Cole said that, while she supported the Rainey Street Fund, the boundaries proposed for Rainey Street were different than those in the Downtown Austin Plan and of the National Historic District.


Resolution sponsor Martinez held his ground.


“The reason that it jumps Cesar Chavez is because Palm Park and Palm School was the original site of the first cultural center,” said Martinez. “It’s significant and integral to Rainey Street.”


Juan Oyervides, chair of the Mexican American Cultural Center Advisory Board, appeared later in the meeting to reinforce this point.


After backing down from the postponement, Cole took another tack and attempted to exclude Block 11, which is the site of the future Fairmount Hotel. That amendment failed in a vote of 3-4, with Council Members Laura Morrison, Kathie Tovo, Chris Riley and Martinez voting in opposition.


Cole cited figures of “over $3 million” in anticipated fees for the project, information that she said she had received from developers of the hotel earlier in the day.


Martinez questioned the reasoning behind a postponement, and opposed the exclusion of Block 11 from the fund. He noted that the fees were unencumbered, and not earmarked for any other project.


“With respect to the question about amount of money, if you ask those community members who are asking for this money for Rainey Street, I’m fairly sure they would say it’s fairly disrespectful to say that we might be giving them too much money for this program,” said Martinez. “We have no funding stream for phase two and three of the MACC. There are tremendous funding needs.”


“This doesn’t do anything to Waller Creek. It doesn’t take funding from the TIF,” said Martinez. “We hope to enhance the Waller Creek project by doing these improvements in the Rainey Street district.”


The money for the program would come from “unencumbered fees” from development, like closing sidewalks or roads. Staff has projected those fees to be about $600,000 in the next budget cycle. However, those numbers could be much higher in future years when the hotel fees are collected.

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