First impressions can be as deceptive on East 11th as anywhere else, however. The single-family houses dotting the street between the highway and Navasota Street farther east are well tended by the people who own and inhabit them, most of them veterans of the neighborhood who are getting up there in years. Ben's Long Branch Barbecue does a good trade on the north side of the street just east of the highway, and so does Mr. David's Hair, about a block away. Just past Waller Street, on the south side of East 11th, the Victory Grill entertains an older clientele - "No one under 25" reads the sign at the door - with jazz and blues on Friday and Saturday nights.
Across the street from the Victory Grill, an odd-looking building on the southeast corner of 11th and Waller may be the most illusory evidence there is of 11th Street's decrepitude. A high awning supported by thick square beams shades the wooden walkway along the front, making the building look like the ghostly remnant of an Old West boomtown. Which, more or less, it is. But it isn't economic blight or redlining by local banks that keeps it boarded up and defunct. Responsibility for that rests squarely with the owner: the City of Austin.
Still referred to by everybody as Shorty's Bar, in honor of the neighborhood watering hole that occupied it from 1960 to 1987, the building was erected by Salvatore Bailetti in 1875. A German immigrant named Benno Haehnel took it over early in this century; in the years since it has been a saloon, grocery store, wine shop, bar, and now, a crack hangout. The city acquired it after Shorty - Eugene Bonner - defaulted on a $30,000 economic improvement zone loan. That was in October, 1991, and the city made it available for redevelopment the following May.
For the past year, Tom Hatch, an architect who offices a few blocks south on East Eighth Street, has stood ready and willing to buy the property from the city, shoulder the loan, perform the work of renovating it, and partner up with somebody who wants to operate it as a grocery, restaurant, retail store, or whatever. The important thing, says Hatch - a rugged-yet-cerebral man around 50 who outdoes Clint Eastwood in laconic terseness - is to make something happen, anything so long as it injects some life into the place. He's done so well for himself designing Whole Foods stores around the country, including the new Austin edifice at Sixth and Lamar, that carrying a note for the likely project cost of $150,000-plus doesn't phase him in the least. "I'm credible," he says, drilling verbosity between the eyes at 30 paces.
Only he won't be given the opportunity. As soon as Councilmember Eric Mitchell assumed office last year, he immediately asked City Manager Jesus Garza to instruct the city's department of Neighborhood Housing and Conservation (NHC) to put development of Shorty's and the rest of the city-owned properties on East 11th Street on hold while he came up with some kind of plan for the area.
That plan bears the name of the entity that would administer it, the Austin Redevelopment Authority, invariably shortened to ARA. It is Eric Mitchell's brainchild, and properly the subject of a long article of its very own. Even a brief look at the plan means opening a wicked can of worms.
For instance, one of the plan's major goals is to deliver a crushing defeat to gentrification before it happens. It would deploy the city's power of eminent domain to capture the sizable portions of East 11th that the city doesn't own, level the old structures, and invite private investment, franchise operations, and joint ventures to come in and reestablish it as a center of African-American economic vitality.
Now, here's where things get sticky. The Guadalupe neighborhood, which borders 11th Street on the south all the way down to Seventh Street, is mainly a Latino and white area. Its political arm, the Guadalupe Association for Improved Neighborhoods (GAIN), doggedly opposes the kind of intensive development that ARA exemplifies. (The still in-limbo Bennett Consolidated luxury hotel/mall project, proposed along I-35 from Eighth to 11th Streets, will only get built over GAIN's dead body, so to speak.)
Inevitably, when GAIN's members criticized ARA at city council hearings, they were accused by ARA supporters of promoting "gentrification" - the gradual influx of white-owned businesses and white homeowners into a low-income minority neighborhood - that presumably would force property values up and the low-income minority residents out. On the other hand, "redevelopment" proposals such as ARA, however extreme in their initial destruction of such a neighborhood, are seen as a purer form of keeping it in the family, so to speak. Under a government-controlled system of a redevelopment plan, investors would ideally be gathered from within the minority community, or from within their broader racial community at large.
Hatch, who is a member of GAIN, says he is sensitive to the issue and would like nothing better than to address it by finding an African-American partner to run the business at Shorty's.
Mention ARA off the record to some city planners and they roll their eyes. "Does it pass the smell test? No, of course it doesn't," says one such staff member, likening it to the scene in the movie The Lion King in which a charred forest is miraculously restored by a single rainfall. To anyone familiar with the history of urban renewal schemes in the era after World War II, the idea that a section of a city can be razed and rejuvenated in one fell swoop sounds like magical thinking. Austin has its own urban renewal scars, especially in East Austin. Large tracts of land on East 12th Street still stand as testimony to the failure of what many bitterly call "Urban Removal." The literature dealing with urban renewal disasters is voluminous; the term itself is poison. (Eric Mitchell tacitly acknowledged this when he sent a memo to Assistant City Manager Oscar Rodriguez, later leaked by a city worker, that requested that the words "urban renewal" never be used in connection with ARA. As a further irony, this isn't the first Austin Redevelopment Authority. The original ARA carried out urban renewal programs in the late Seventies. The group was originally known at the URA, or Urban Renewal Authority, but changed their name to ARA to improve their relations with a mistrustful public.) Nevertheless, the ARA plan and the urban renewal method it promotes have attracted vociferous support at council hearings and neighborhood meetings from citizens who like its bold assault on indifference and inertia.
Money is probably the gnarliest worm of all. Budgeted for about $70 million when all is said and done, ARA needs an infusion of $8.8 million in federal funds from the Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) to get started. The NHC will submit a so-called "108" application for commercial development funds in that amount to HUD late this month; HUD traditionally delivers an answer within 60-90 days. Major sticking point: HUD may not exist after the 104th Congress completes its napalm run on federal government programs. Or its budget may be reduced to a shadow of what it was, or its money transferred to state governments for use as block grants, meaning more delays while the State of Texas figures out how to appropriate its share. Or HUD could decide it doesn't like the plan for the historical reasons cited above, and turn it down flat.
Yet even if ARA were approved and fully funded tomorrow, the historical value of Shorty's Bar would protect it from the wrecking ball. The Historical Landmark Commission likes to descend with hobnailed boots on attempts to destroy century-old buildings. Oscar Rodriguez agrees that Shorty's would be no exception.
That brings up an even stickier question. Assuming that tearing it down is unthinkable, why not let Tom Hatch buy it and go ahead with his renovation? What could possibly be bad about that? Would it not be, in hideous Nineties jargon, a win-win situation?
Not really, says Tim Stack, a neighborhood development manager at NHC who oversees the ARA proposal. "The whole concept of a redevelopment authority is to have as much contiguous property as possible. I think the concern is that if you let one go, then you jeopardize the process." The motivation isn't there, he continues, for "taking out a major piece [of the plan] all of a sudden, right in the heart of it."
Shorty's may in the thick of Mitchell's ARA plan now, but the property has been available for redevelopment since 1992. One of East Austin's most prominent African-American businessmen attempted to rebuild it, but the deal fell through. State lobbyist and occasional East Austin real estate dabbler Cal Varner, who offices just down the street from Shorty's at 11th and Navasota, won the development bid, and approval from Texas Commerce Bank for a loan to cover half the costs. "They agreed to fund 50%, and NHC was going to fund the other 50%," explains Stack. "Cal spent close to $15,000 getting drawings from an architect and things like that - he did a tremendous amount of due diligence out of his own pocket. But his business couldn't support the debt service, nor could he have made enough from leasing it. To Cal's credit, people were throwing money at him and he backed off rather than get in over his head." Varner did not return phone calls regarding this article.
Unfortunately, that all consumed two years. (Tom Hatch says he didn't bid in 1992 because "the cash flow wasn't there" at the right moment.) East 11th appears cursed by inertia, especially when City of Austin property is involved. City of Austin "Partners in Community Economic Development" signs appear to have become permanent fixtures in the area; posted in front of city property for several years, they seem to mock the hope of the surrounding residents. Now that Mitchell has put East 11th Street activity on hold, more delays are in the offing.
Mitchell and Varner are well acquainted, which does give rise to suspicion among GAIN activists and East 11th Street residents who would love to see a revived Shorty's trigger a process of less intensive, piecemeal development along the street. But their suspicions are destined to remain just that, as any questions regarding such a connection between Mitchell and prospective developers with whom he is acquainted will likely go unanswered by the councilmember. Ever since an American-Statesman reporter quoted Mitchell referring to citizens at a public hearing as "a bunch of assholes," Mitchell has maintained a strict media blackout. He did not return repeated phone calls for this article.
Meanwhile, property values in the area are rocketing upward. Guadalupe homeowners report increases on their appraisal statements in excess of 100%. Shorty's itself was worth $22,820 in 1992 and now appraises at $45,000. East Austin's proximity to downtown has finally overtaken its reputation as a hellhole in the eyes of real estate people. A lot of money stands to be made there in the near future, giving rise to the inevitable jockeying for position by interested parties. Mitchell's directive to halt piecemeal development puts the race on hold, but the horses are still stamping at the gate.
"If you don't interpret these sites, someone else will," says Donna Carter, a local architect who fulfilled the city contract to fix the distinctive metal roof on Shorty's a few years ago for around $30,000 in city funds. "That is absolutely the crux of the issue." She argues that preserving and reviving buildings like Shorty's Bar is a small but important way of representing "the continuity of [African-American] experience since emancipation. The buildings where that history happened are important." n
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