As we go to press Wednesday, it appears likely the City Council will scrap a proposal to sell a tract of land on Rainey Street – signifying a major victory for the neighboring Mexican American Cultural Center.
A last-minute resolution added to today's agenda (sponsored by Council Members Mike Martinez and Laura Morrison and Mayor Lee Leffingwell) calls for withdrawing the land-sale proposal and incorporating the property into the MACC's three-phase master plan, with a more immediate eye toward resolving the cultural center's parking woes.
Yet even with Kathie Tovo's anticipated fourth vote to shelve the deal, virtually anything could happen between this writing and 4pm on Thursday, Oct. 11, when council is scheduled to consider the item – along with three staff-proposed options for selling the small corner lot at 64 Rainey St.
As of late Tuesday, an agent for the prospective buyers said they were still pursuing acquisition of the property; the city historically has had a hard time saying no to developer interests. In this case, the tract is located within the Waller Creek tax-financing district, which makes the sale of the property even more appealing to Waller Creek leaders like Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and other movers and shakers behind the project.
Last month, the council postponed action on the land deal and requested that the two parties – MACC representatives and developers – meet to discuss the proposed plans for the site. A development partnership led by Don Reese seeks to buy the city-owned property to build a two-or-three-story structure for unspecified use – although popular opinion holds that a parking garage would be built there. Reese and his partners are working on a 30-story retail/residential project at nearby 70 Rainey St., and they say they need the additional tract to help execute their development plans.
City staff has put forward three sale options, two of which would include dedicated parking spaces for the MACC. A low sale price of $100,000 would require 30 parking spaces be reserved, while $400,000 would require 20 spaces. A third price option of $1.2 million includes no parking benefits for the MACC.
Austin's Hispanic leaders have decried selling the small parcel for private development without considering design compatibilities, much less consulting with the MACC board. They cited the potential obstruction of the center's sight lines, diminishing the architectural significance of the striking, crescent-shaped structure on the north shore of Lady Bird Lake.
Addressing the council at its Sept. 27 meeting, MACC Advisory Board Chair Juan Oyervides said it's bad enough that the cultural center is already framed by two unsightly transmission lines. A two-story structure sitting at the corner of Rainey and River streets would block a significant portion of the view of the MACC from the entrance, he said. "Our primary concern is the aesthetics. We're very proud of the MACC – it's something that's very close and dear to our hearts." He added, "I'm appealing to your sense of community to transfer this piece of land over to the MACC."
The postponement of the vote allowed leaders of the Hispanic community to strategize an action plan that attempts to defeat the land deal. They started an online petition and called attention to a YouTube video of the 1983 demolition of the Los Elementos mural and the historic Juarez-Lincoln building at Cesar Chavez and I-35. MACC supporter Paul Saldaña showed the video at a special-called meeting of the MACC board at which Reese was on hand to outline his development plans. The demolition of the mural and building was supposed to have paved the way for new development in the Rainey neighborhood, but the deal fell through; the site is now home to an IHOP and a parking lot.
On a larger scale, the proposed sale of the city-owned land threatened to reopen old wounds caused by the gradual demise of Austin's first known Mexican American neighborhood, now a thumping bar and restaurant scene in an area poised for more density under its Central Business District zoning.
Named in honor of one of the MACC's driving forces, the late Emma S. Barrientos, the cultural center represents the only remnant of the community's place in the historic Southeast Downtown neighborhood, Hispanic leaders say.
It happens that a somewhat related item is also on Thursday's council agenda that could shine more light on the city's handling of future real estate transactions involving city-owned land. Item 76, a resolution sponsored by Morrison and Chris Riley, reads in part: "[I]ncreased transparency and dialogue, along with a holistic and comprehensive consideration of City policies, plans, and vision, would better serve the residents of Austin and the long term vitality and success of the City."
Should the measure pass, the city manager – who frequently boasts that Austin is a leader among "best-managed cities" (or "most-managed," as some refer to it) – would have 45 days to fashion a plan for better transparency regarding real estate deals.
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