Monday, March 12, 2018 by Jack Craver

Council wants action on city-owned vacant lots

City Council is looking to more than a dozen city-owned properties as opportunities to provide affordable housing, arts spaces, parkland and economic development, in some cases looking to emulate past developments on public land, such as Mueller and Seaholm.

City staff has identified five sites as top candidates for major redevelopment that could have a big impact in addressing Council’s priorities, explained Lauraine Rizer, who heads the Office of Real Estate Services, at a March 6 Council work session.

The five properties include a tract at 1014 McKalla Lane, just east of Burnet Road and south of Braker Lane; a parcel on Justin Lane, in the Brentwood neighborhood; a tract that used to house a Home Depot and a Chrysler dealership at St. Johns Avenue and the Interstate 35 frontage road; the former site of a HealthSouth rehabilitation center at 1215 Red River St.; and a property on Winnebago Lane, southeast of the intersection of I-35 and State Highway 71.

Staff explained a new process for making a decision on what to do with the land, which would begin with an assessment by staff of how different types of projects could fulfill city goals. That analysis would lead to a recommendation by staff to be presented to Council, which would then approve the recommended plan or demand changes. Afterward, staff would seek bids from developers interested in undertaking the project.

Ideally, explained Deputy Chief Financial Officer Greg Canally, the city would find a way to make the developments “pay for themselves” by partnering with a private developer, similar to what it did with Mueller.

In some cases, explained Rizer, the best use of a city property is to sell it and use the money to build housing or other desired facilities elsewhere. That’s exactly what the city did to fund the construction of the Asian American Cultural Center on Jollyville Road.

For going on 10 years, staff has been engaged with neighborhood groups and others about what to do about the Justin Lane parcel, noted Rizer.

Some Council members expressed frustration with the prospect of further discussion and planning and the fact that the only next step outlined by staff was a “progress report” on the development of plans in June.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said that Council had already provided plenty of direction to staff about what it wants to do with city-owned parcels. Now is the time to move forward, she said, particularly in light of the city’s affordable housing crisis.

“I’m ready to pick a tract and say, let’s not analyze every use, let’s create some affordable housing,” she said.

Citing Justin Lane, Tovo wondered if there was any further Council action needed for staff to start soliciting bids from developers. Rizer responded that if Council was not interested in offering further input on the matter, staff could start the process right away.

Council Member Delia Garza similarly said that she’s been puzzled by the lack of action on the Winnebago tract in her district. One nonprofit, she said, has expressed interest in developing the land for housing. So far, said Garza, city staff has not been very responsive.

Council Member Leslie Pool pushed back on the call for urgency. The point is not to develop the lots as soon as possible, she said, but to make sure that they’re projects that maximize community benefits.

“I want to make sure I hear from everybody,” she said.

Pool also said, in an ostensible response to Garza, that Council members should “take the lead” on projects that they want to see happen in their districts.

“I think that might be the piece that staff can’t say but we have the entire authority to do,” she said.

Garza bristled at the suggestion that she was not making enough of an effort. It was staff that had not been responsive to her emails and texts, she said.

In addition, Garza rejected the idea that projects should be viewed through the lens of a Council district, rather than the city as a whole. It is Council’s duty to use city-owned properties to fulfill citywide goals, she said.

Garza also said that Council should be wary of letting the use of the parcels be dictated by those who live nearby.

“(They’re) going to want what every neighborhood that’s near a vacant piece of property wants: parkland,” she said. “Or to leave it vacant.”

Council Member Greg Casar concurred: “If you just ask folks on the street what (they) want there, it’s of course, all parkland.”

That would not be the case in her district, replied Council Member Ora Houston.

“We need employment, we need creative spaces and we need amenities,” said Houston. “We have plenty of parkland.”

Council Member Alison Alter said the city could learn from what worked and what didn’t for Mueller. “Generally it’s looked at as a great development,” she said. “But maybe the city could have gotten even more.”

Tovo also suggested that Council soon consider what it wants to do about the McKalla Lane property, which is being considered as a possible site for a Major League Soccer stadium. Council should compare that potential use against the “rationale for housing” on the same site, she said.

Film still via youtube map courtesy of the city of Austin.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

economic development: This is short for fiscal growth experienced by the City of Austin or businesses in and around the region.

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