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Council endorses changes to East 11th and 12th street development regulations

Monday, May 2, 2022 by Jonathan Lee

Before a troubled history of urban renewal and disinvestment led the city to declare the areas blighted, 11th and 12th streets were once thriving corridors in East Austin’s Black community. Now, the city is shepherding land use changes along the streets to help create a more vibrant, walkable neighborhood.

City Council gave initial approval on April 21 to the land use changes, which aim to bring sometimes contradictory plans for the area into harmony. The changes apply to the area’s Urban Renewal Plan and the 11th and 12th Street Neighborhood Conservation Combining Districts. The underlying zoning categories will remain the same.

“​​We’re making sure the regulations are more streamlined, less prescriptive, and will encourage the kind of diverse, active and walkable corridors that people have already told us that they want to see,” Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents the area, said. She called the changes “the culmination of a very long process” involving extensive community feedback.

The proposed changes on both corridors will remove some site development standards – things like compatibility and floor area ratio – while slightly modifying height limits. Generally, regulations along East 11th Street allow more density than those for East 12th. The changes also mean some uses are allowed where they weren’t before and vice versa. Currently there are bars, homes, offices and neighborhood commercial uses along both streets. Many lots, however, still sit vacant or unused. 

Nearly two dozen people spoke on the changes. While most were generally in favor of rules that would create a more walkable neighborhood, amendments by Harper-Madison to allow bars and music venues in more places proved controversial. Harper-Madison listed several addresses along East 12th Street to grant cocktail lounge use by right, and along both corridors, proposed allowing cocktail lounges with a conditional use permit. Along 12th, cocktail lounge use would be limited to 3,500 square feet.

Some residents, several of whom moved to the area in the past several years, don’t want any more bars. “Please do not turn us into a Rainey Street or Red River,” Susan Oringer said. Harper-Madison countered by saying, “We’re not going to get a flood of bars on 12th Street.” Patrick Houck argued that anyone could easily get a conditional use permit for a bar – a claim Harper-Madison refuted, pointing to the unsuccessful effort to allow alcohol at Zilker Cafe. 

Resident Jennifer Vu said she is fed up with noise from the area’s bars. “​​We already can’t sleep at night,” Vu said, adding that she had complained to the city multiple times to no avail. While Council members sympathized, they considered noise an enforcement problem separate from land use changes.

A survey conducted by the city showed broad support for bars and music venues. Over 500 people responded, around half of whom said they lived within half a mile of either corridor. Eighty-six percent said neighborhood pubs and bars should be allowed, 85 percent were OK with indoor live music venues and 68 percent were in favor of outdoor music. 

Longtime residents say bars are a big part of the area’s culture. “It is an entertainment district,” Stacy Williams said. “It was an entertainment district. That culture we are trying to preserve includes cocktail lounges.”

Carmela Green called out residents complaining about nightlife. “The music, the art and the location that so many transplants enjoy is because of us,” Green said. “And we will not be erased due to gentrification and neighbors who are not in community with us but constantly complain about this side of town.” 

The area’s most prominent property owner, Eureka Holdings, was also in favor of Harper-Madison’s amendments. “I believe that with the idea of a cultural district that you need to service people who come to experience the culture of that place with food and beverages,” said Rebecca Leonard, representing Eureka. The Dallas-based developer has bought dozens of parcels along East 12th Street in the past several years, and what’s in store for its properties has been the subject of much speculation. Leonard provided no information about Eureka’s plans. The city of Austin also owns several properties in the area. 

Council unanimously approved the changes recommended by city staff, as well Harper-Madison’s amendments, on first reading. The changes will come back to Council for second and third reading in the coming weeks.

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