Déjà vu all over again
It was indeed a "conversation" – but not much was said that hasn't been said before. Neighbors blasted the city and the Austin Revitalization Authority for not accomplishing enough on the near Eastside; the ARA's Charles Urdy defended his agency – and no one's quite sure where we go from here.
That was the scene at the Carver Museum last week during the city-sponsored Corridor Conversation Town Hall, a panel discussion and audience Q&A regarding the redevelopment of East 11th and 12th streets (or in the case of 12th, the lack thereof). The panel featured representatives of the tri-party agreement (the city, ARA, and the Urban Renewal Agency board) and development industry representatives, sitting before a full house in the 134-seat Boyd Vance Theatre.
The one thing on which everyone on the panel could agree: Don't expect much along the corridor in the near future.
"It's no secret that this is a very challenging economic climate for development of any kind," said economist Charles Heimsath of Capitol Market Research, "nationally and in the city of Austin, although we are doing much better here than many other cities are around the country. Still, it is extraordinarily difficult to get anything financed in the current environment."
"It's difficult and going to be difficult for the next several years, two to three years, to develop anywhere," said attorney Nikelle Meade, who specializes in government and real estate issues. "So I don't think that's special to East 11th and 12th."
Not unexpectedly, many turned out to vent their anger at ARA, formed by the city a decade and a half ago to encourage redevelopment of the corridor while maintaining its historic culture. In the years since, ARA has built a couple of mixed-use buildings and some houses along and near 11th, but almost nothing has changed along 12th.
Steve Mann, son of the former owners of Minnie's Beauty Salon, complained that his family's attempts to sell their lot on 12th got bogged down because "certain powers that be" within ARA didn't approve of proposed uses and kept "people that look like me" from "cashing in on our legacy. ... Just because ARA has [i.e., owns] less than what would be a parking lot, we can't even sell our property," Mann said. "We're landlocked waiting for the ARA to decide [that] they want a coffee shop instead of what we as owners for 25 years would like to do with our property."
"That represented a complete misunderstanding of what has transpired," objected Urdy. "First of all, the ARA owns no land on 12th Street." Urdy said the land in question is owned by the city and was part of the tract that was proposed to host a nursing care facility, and he correctly pointed out that the project died when surrounding neighborhoods objected. "It was never our proposal, it was not our land, all we were doing was trying to expedite the development of that land," Urdy continued, "so how the misunderstanding came about that the ARA stopped a development there, I do not understand."
Of course, as longtime followers of the saga know, the ARA and those neighbors are not allies. "Everybody wants a change," said Stan Strickland of the Robertson Hill Neighborhood Association. "We don't want the tri-party arrangement anymore." RHNA and the nearby Swede Hill Neighborhood Association have called for the city to end its current arrangement of financially supporting the ARA and instead to open up development in the area to other parties.
But Urdy replied that the ARA was a "preferred developer" only on certain blocks of 11th in the original agreement. "We are not the preferred developer of any properties on East 12th Street," he said. "We are a nonprofit working with the city, and someone who wanted to use their property has a right to come through ARA if they want to ... but nothing that the city has or ARA has would prevent a private developer from developing their property on East 12th like they can anywhere else in the city."
The entire town hall can be viewed on the city's Channel 6 website, www.cityofaustin.org/channel6, under "Videos."