East Side Hotel Denied
Planning Commission fails to approve permit
By Tony Cantú,
2:30PM, Wed. Jun. 10, 2015
On Tuesday, June 9, the city's Planning Commission voted 4-1 against granting a conditional use permit for a pair of would-be hoteliers who hope to build a 65-room, three-story facility in the midst of an established neighborhood.
"The decision by the Planning Commission is a guarded relief to those of us who worked so hard to fight the construction of a hotel on East Cesar Chavez, the aorta of our beloved neighborhood," a weary Alberto Martinez, chair of the East Cesar Chavez Neighborhood Planning Team, said the day after the vote. "We pounded the streets with petitions, we researched, we planned, we gave it our all. But most importantly, we came together – disparate groups that at times fight each other – in a common cause. We came together and and we prevailed." (However, the developers will now will likely appeal the Planning Commission's ruling.)
Some 40 community members gathered outside City Hall to protest the development before the Planning Commission's vote. They would wait until midnight to hear the board's decision in a packed agenda where the issue was the 18th item to be discussed. District 3 Council Member Pio Renteria was among those voicing his disapproval of the hotel plans: "There are many things in our neighborhood that are desperately needed. This hotel is not one of these," he said, noting the increased traffic the hotel would bring on an already congested East Cesar Chavez. Brian and Bree Carrico, a husband-and-wife team of entrepreneurs, hope to build their hotel at 1207 E. Cesar Chavez – across the street from a daycare center and church. "It will affect the safety of our children," Renteria said. "It is not needed here in our neighborhood, and it's about time we decide we're not going to take it anymore."
The proposed hotel project came against a backdrop of gentrification on the Eastside that has caused many longtime residents to be displaced. Among the people signed up to speak in opposition to the project was Sergio Lejarazu, Jumpolin co-owner with wife Monica (see “Eastward Expansion," April 10). Former state representative Gonzalo Barrientos also spoke out against the project ahead of the meeting: "I ask business people trying to put facilities there to be reasonable and consider the people living there for decades if not generations."
The Carricos describe themselves as a husband-and-wife team with strong ties to Austin (they own a home in West Austin), with visions of running a "boutique" hotel patterned after the Heywood. But opponents point to the much larger scale of their plans, questioning the comparison to the seven-room Heywood hotel. In an earlier interview, Martinez lauded the Heywood developers for their preserving the façade of the original structure and mitigating its presence with its reduced scale. "You wouldn't even know it's there," Martinez said of the Heywood, noting the neighborhood team ultimately gave its blessing – an indication residents are not anti-growth but insist on design that is compatible to the neighborhood and adds to it.
Conversely, residents say the Carricos' hotel plans as envisioned are out-of-step with the current character of the neighborhood. AISD trustee Paul Saldaña's role as a paid consultant has further raised their ire, given his past role as an opponent of commercial encroachment (most recently at the Mexican-American Cultural Center, in the midst of which a condominium developer plans to build a high-rise).
Opponents have also viewed with suspicion the timing – a week before the Planning Commission meeting – of the Carricos’ agreement with Workers Defense Project to ensure a broad range of protections and benefits for the constructions workers who would build the structure (see "Eastside Developer Promises $15/Hour Wage Floor, and More," June 5). "WDP doesn't get to decide what is built, but to make sure those who help build the city can earn a wage so they can afford to make a living in the city they help to build," said WDP Executive Director Cristina Tzintzún in an interview before the vote.
Finally, some question whether there are other interests backing the hotel. When pressed, Brian Carrico acknowledged he and his wife do have further financial backing for their plans to build the $19 million hotel, but declined to identify them to protect their privacy.
But as in most cases pitting developers against neighborhood associations, it's the people who have called the neighborhood home who get caught in the middle. Six families have already been displaced from their homes as the Carricos sought to clear land for their development. Late last year, they purchased a handful of homes – including the stately Victorian-style home at 1207 E. Cesar Chavez – that rest in the footprint of the proposed hotel. Shortly after their purchase, residents living in those homes were given unceremonious notice to vacate. "We are hereby giving you the final notice that we no longer own this property," wrote former owners Daniel P. Vasquez and Robert P. Vasquez. "We cannot accept rent from you anymore. Please do your best to move out as soon as possible. We thank you for the time you have rented from us."
One of those displaced residents is 76-year-old Julia Ortiz, who has lived at 1211 E. Cesar Chavez for the past six years. Her daughter, Janie Ancira Rivas, spoke against the project on her mother's behalf. "There's nowhere for her to go," Rivas said during an interview before the vote. "She's worried now because I'm here, she won't get her money," she said of the $1,500 check she and other residents were given by the Carricos' team to help defray moving costs. Rivas said her mother had been paying $600 a month for her small unit. It's unlikely she'll be able to find comparable rent on a part of town that is now the darling of developers. "I've been looking for her," Rivas said. "Rents are $2,300, $3,000. I found a place for a rinky dink little nothingness on Comal and 3rd for $1,875 a month and it's already rented out."
An earlier version of this story described Heywood Hotel as having 17 rooms. It has seven. The Chronicle regrets the error.