Friday, September 20, 2019 by Jo Clifton

Urban Renewal Board extended for just nine months

City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison expressed serious reservations about the need to continue Austin’s Urban Renewal Agency and its board during Wednesday’s Council work session and again at Thursday’s Council meeting.

In the end, she convinced her colleagues to extend the life of the Urban Renewal Board for just nine months, instead of the 12 months, with possible extensions, that city staffers had recommended.

On Thursday, a few members of the community expressed their support for the agency and its work along the East 11th and 12th street corridors, despite the fact that they have not gotten a developer or developed their own plans for the last two empty parcels on 11th Street. It is clear that Harper-Madison is looking for action on those two vacant properties. In city terms, that’s most likely to be a request for proposal.

So instead of offering a motion to dispose of the board altogether she offered a motion to allow it to continue to operate for nine months, rather than the 12 months (with five 12-month extensions) proposed by the Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department. It turns out state law requires a Council vote in order to eliminate the board and its agency, as Rosie Truelove, director of NHCD, informed them.

Harper-Madison’s motion included a direction to City Manager Spencer Cronk to report back to Council on actions taken by the Urban Renewal Board during the six months ending on March 31, 2020. After some editing from Council Member Kathie Tovo to make clear that Council would vote on whether to continue the board at the end of nine months, Council unanimously approved Harper-Madison’s motion.

For an agency created so long ago, Harper-Madison’s obvious question is: What’s taking so long?

“We’re talking about a process that has been in place since 1999 and properties that have been at play since 2008, 2009. We don’t have time to extend processes that to date haven’t worked,” she said. “At that nine-month mark we get to reassess whether to move forward with the Urban Renewal Board in place with what I would like to see – some new board members, some of what I consider more appropriate representation of a historic African American heritage cultural district place. And I would also like for us to at that time have that board be able to recognize whether they need more time,” or whether they are not in a position to accomplish what needs to be accomplished with the remaining parcels.

Harper-Madison concluded that she wanted the nine months to be a “hard deadline” for the board to “either prove something has transpired to the benefit of the community and the use of those two parcels or we move in a different direction.”

Board Chair Maegan Ellis told Council she and other members of the board had thought they were working within a five-year time frame after the agency’s renewal last December. So they were caught off guard in August when they heard there were questions about their performance. She said she reached out to every Council member and offered to meet, but no one took her up on her offer.

Clarification: Harper-Madison’s office told the Monitor that, despite this assertion, they had met with Ellis.

Ellis said each member of the board has a unique story about their historic relationship to East Austin and each is dedicated to the East 11th and 12th street neighborhoods. Ellis said her agency had worked diligently with the neighborhood, historic preservationists and the Austin Revitalization Authority. Anything less than the 12-month extension recommended by staff and its five one-year extensions would “sound the death knell to decades of community planning and send a message to Austin neighbors that there is no more room for them at the table” in planning and the development of neighborhoods.

Bonnie Ramsey, who made her way to the microphone with the aid of a walker, said she had been living in East Austin for more than two decades. She said her neurological problems make it hard for her to feel comfortable in most settings, but Kenny Dorham’s Backyard was an exception. She described the outdoor music venue as a “wonderful cultural venue on East 11th Street. It’s the only place I feel welcome to go,” she said.

The venue, she said, is operated on land managed by the Urban Renewal Agency and every year the owner negotiates a license agreement for diverse arts. Last week, she said, the owner tried to negotiate an agreement to continue the art program for a year, but staff only brought a 30-day agreement because they were uncertain about continuation of the agency. She found that very troubling.

According to the city’s website, “In an election conducted on December 5, 1959, the voters of Austin elected to create an Urban Renewal Agency to carry out Urban Renewal project powers in accordance with Chapter 374 of the Texas Local Government Code (Urban Renewal in Municipalities). The Board of Commissioners of the Urban Renewal Agency, who are appointed by the Mayor with the consent of the Council, primary responsibility is to oversee the implementation and compliance of approved Urban Renewal Plans that are adopted by the Austin City Council. An Urban Renewal Plan’s primary purpose is to eliminate slum and blighting influence within a designated area of the city.”

Mayor Steve Adler appointed two new members to the board on Thursday, Danielle Skidmore and Patrick Howard. He also reappointed Manuel Escobar.

This story has been changed since publication to correct the fact that the parcels are on 11th, not 12th, street and to add a clarification. Photo by Nathaniel made available through a Creative Commons license.

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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.

City of Austin Urban Renewal Board: The body charged with oversight of, according to its web site, "the implementation and compliance of approved Urban Renewal Plans that are adopted by the Austin City Council."

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