The Daily Hustle: 12/3/10

Marshall arms race heats up

Marshall at Salina
Marshall at Salina (Photo via Google Street View)

It's safe to say since we wrote about it earlier this week, the Marshall Apartments permanent supportive housing proposal has absolutely gone bananas, with press releases, neighborhood votes, and a high profile resignation from the Urban Renewal Board.

All that, and it still ain't even on the draft agenda.

A refresher: Both the Swede Hill and Robertson Hill neighborhood associations oppose the project, which would rehab the 100-unit Section 8 property at its two locations (1401 E. 12th and 1157 Salina) and set aside 20 units for PSH, including wrap-around services like counseling, caseworkers, and more. (Swede Hill boundaries start across the street from the 12th st. portion of Marshall; Robertson Hill includes all the 12th St. portion of the apartments.)

“PSH is wholly inconsistent with what was envisioned and agreed to when the community created specific reuse objectives and other project controls for each block of East 12th Street, and it will deter private investment along the entire corridor,” says a letter, dated Nov. 19, from the Swede Hill Board of Directors to the city. “As such, any proposal to establish PSH on this urban renewal corridor cannot warrant expenditure of any public subsidy, let alone almost $8M” – the approximate cost of the $2.5 million City Council's Austin Housing Finance Corporation Board of Directors is expected to approve on Dec. 9, plus $5 million in AHFC backed private activity bonds.

Nov. 30, Robertson Hill opposed the project in their own letter, coming out against the proposal, citing “The safety and welfare of our children living in and around the Marshall Apartments,” noting “The East 12th and Chicon Streets intersection, 2 blocks from the Marshall Apartments, is a long-time haven for open and obvious drug sales, vagrancy, and prostitution,” and that “the current proposal fails to require Summit Housing Partners,” the company that would rehab and operate the revamped facilities, “to invest any amount of their own funding and is conditioned on the integration of PSH.”

But making even more waves this week was the Tuesday resignation announcement by Sean Garretson from the Urban Renewal Board. The board's inability, as stated by chair Ben Sifuentes, to do anything about the Marshall proposal was at the heart of his departure. In a widely circulated letter to council articulating his resignation, he writes:

Noble as this endeavor may be, the public financing required to realize this project will be the first major City investment in 12th Street, and the project is being pushed in spite of broad and intense opposition from adjacent neighborhoods and East 12th Street property owners. The project does not fit within the principles and goals of the URP; it may even violate them. It was puzzling and disheartening that URB learned about the Marshall project at the 11th hour from concerned neighborhoods rather than via a timely and complete briefing from NHCD [Neighborhood Housing and Community Development], the very people who both serve as our staff and are tasked with evaluating Summit Housing’s application for a $2.5M forgivable loan via Rental Housing Development Assistance; and this exemplifies the structural defects that exist. NHCD cannot, necessarily, be blamed for this, their actions are just a symptom of the problems.
He goes on to blast the limited process the board had on the project:
On November 15, URB was confronted at its monthly meeting with stakeholder after stakeholder describing a gamut of concerns about PSH at Marshall, but rather than take action to review this project’s compliance with the URP, we were unable to take action because we had yet to receive a full briefing on the project. One week later, URB hastily convened with an ill-defined purpose around which the public and commissioners might frame discussion of PSH at Marshall, and Chairman Sifuentes dominated the proceedings by unilaterally re-ordering agenda items and allowing Summit and Caritas free reign to present the project’s merits and dialogue with commissioners for over 90 minutes. Before returning to what was to have been the first item on the agenda—public comments on the project—and without any input from fellow commissioners, Chairman Sifuentes berated the stakeholders present as gentrifiers who wanted “everything pretty” and declared in advance that URB was powerless to act in this matter. Though the board listened to all public comment, which overwhelmingly expressed unequivocal opposition rather than the support promised by City staff, under Chairman Sifuentes’ unilateral determination, the meeting’s results were predetermined, and other concerned commissioners were unable to take into consideration whether the project complies with the Plan.
He concludes noting “The handling of the Marshall Apartments project has created more distrust and acrimony for the City and NHCD than I have seen in the many years that I have participated in East Austin revitalization efforts, which long pre-date my assignment to the URB. And it has needlessly reignited racial tensions that will take years to extinguish. Council should stop this project, not only because it fails to comport with URP goals, but because now is not the right time.” He also says Sifuentes should go, saying “URB must enjoy greater autonomy to implement the URP separate from NHCD. This implies a restructuring of the URB that begins with Council’s call for the Chairman to step down. The Chairman has served for too long, and his tactics have marginalized other members of the Board. The community and URB commissioners need an active leader whose abilities are equal to the task of leading the revitalization effort forward, but who is also able to ensure active input from all board members and the community.”

Despite the fireworks, opposition to the project is less than unanimous. The Kealing Neighborhood Association (which encompasses the Salina street portion of the apartments) is holding a vote tomorrow on whether to support the project, and NA prez Rick Cofer saying neighborhood residents have been in favor of the rehab. Moreover, the city tells the Hustle that the services offered to PSH clients will be offered to residents as a whole.

Oh, and did we notice this isn't even on the draft agenda yet? We sense the city's trying to avoid controversy on this one, but seriously.

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