Whether You Like It or Not...
Eric Mitchell's Redevelopment Dreams
During his three-minute ration of participatory democracy, gadfly and homeless person Kirk Becker recently offered the council what he thought was a harmless and logical solution to the mayor's proposed anti-homeless ordinance. Why not use federal housing grants earmarked for Eric Mitchell's pet project, the $9.6 million Rosewood Entertainment Center, to build new shelters?
To most of the politicians on the dais, it was just another in a series of inconsequential notions, but to the center's shepherd it was nothing short of a personal threat. After the citizen's closing remarks, the 41-year-old councilmember and business-owner bolted out of the chambers and into the foyer where he dead-eyed Becker and seethed, "Go fuck yourself!"
It was nothing if not quintessential Mitchell. "Bullying," charges colleague Brigid Shea, is his modus operandi. Indeed, the de facto East Austin councilmember has displayed a temperament and a cavalier attitude worthy of his self-described upbringing as a teenage Atlanta gang-member. He's repeatedly bad-mouthed fellow councilmembers and average citizens, leaving in his wake an outraged and offended public. But for all his ferocity - perhaps the manifestation of a man who sees the world as racially unjust - Mitchell may well be the best councilmember the Eastside has ever had. Relying on a small but vociferous group of supporters, as well as a political sleight of hand and an understanding of urban development minutiae that far outstrips his predecessor, Mitchell is on track to pull off the impossible: the redevelopment of East Austin.
Question is: who's benefiting? To hear staunch Eastside supporters like Dorothy Turner tell it, the newest and most volatile councilmember is the Messiah of the East Austin masses. "Eric is what we've hoped and prayed for," says the head of the Black Citizens' Task Force. "He's the most dynamic councilmember we've ever had, and you haven't seen nothing yet. He's doing everything that some of the other councilmembers started and couldn't finish."
Mitchell's biggest victory by far was winning council approval on June 22 for the funding of the once-doomed entertainment center, accomplished with a political savvy that belies his penchant for public tantrums. To revive the project from the somnolent agenda of his predecessor, Dr. Charles Urdy, he immediately changed its scope from a private-development venture to a community-enhancement project. The new designation made the lack of private interest inconsequential, since start-up money could now come from a federal housing loan. The strategy paid off in the form of an $8.8 million advance available by the middle of next month.
The change made funding possible, but using public dollars for entertainment was politically risky. So, months before the approved loan was to arrive on the dais for council acceptance, he periodically called for a simple vote to deem the center a "council priority," often before the backdrop of angry black citizens clamoring for racial justice. The predictable results: always unanimous approval. Thenceforth, with more crucial decisions at hand, Mitchell would publicly harken back to the council's earlier commitments. It worked. The groundbreaking ceremony is October 21; staff hope to open the center - complete with bowling alley, movie theatre, skating rink, and other amenities - by the end of next summer. Though estimated operating losses total $950,000 a year in a best-case scenario, only Max Nofziger and Brigid Shea, she through abstentions, have taken to opposing the center.
Mitchell's accomplishment is especially noteworthy considering East Austin's years of neglect. In the 12 years prior to Mitchell's ascension, Urdy's self-described efforts of "working with other councilmembers and building alliances with other councilmembers" yielded only an often-vacant rec center (De Witty). Mitchell, on the other hand, immediately drew lines between himself and the rest of the council, refusing to meet with everyone but Jackie Goodman and Ronney Reynolds in the initial months of his term. "Eric doesn't need to be diplomatic," says Turner. "He has the community's support."
He embarked on an even more independent political course last winter, when he began a media blackout against the city's two largest newspapers. In the case of the Austin-American Statesman, his reticence began shortly after the daily quoted him on the front page in late February calling about 600 or so environmentalists "a bunch of assholes," a few days after they had remonstrated against another proposed Freeport-McMoRan development above Barton Creek. He accused the Statesman reporter of breaching an off-the-record agreement.
Mitchell stopped talking to The Austin Chronicle shortly after this reporter made an initial inquiry into his insurance firm, Wormley, Mitchell & Associates, in February. Mitchell's last words at the time were, "You tell your editors I said, `Up yours!'" For this article, Mitchell would not respond to repeated requests, both verbal and written, for an interview. Nor would he consent to having his photo taken, turning askance each time the photographer approached him.
Indeed, perhaps as a symbol of his separatist struggle, Mitchell hung up a picture of Malcolm X shortly after moving into Urdy's old office, tossed out the perfectly good brown furnishings, and with the council credit card spent approximately $5,000 on a leather sofa arrangement, desks, chairs, and the like, all in his "favorite color." Black.
It's a fervent ethnocentrism that may be the biggest difference between Mitchell and Urdy. Years will pass before the public forgets Mitchell's flamboyant reaction early this summer to the mayor's request to move him from one end of the dais to the other. Acting as though he suspected a racial plot of the highest order designed to sucker him into the traditional "black councilmember" chair, Mitchell stated prior to the day of the proposed relocation that police would have to bodily drag him to the new seat. While such a spectacle would have done wonders for Channel 6 ratings, the cops never arrived. After a majority of his colleagues approved the proposal, Mitchell willingly moved, although he wouldn't sit in the chair for the rest of the councilmeeting. He blamed the occupant of his old seat, Nofziger, for working behind the scenes for the switch, and accused him of failing to step up to him "face-to-face, as a man..." To some of the public, it was just another dose of Mitchell's vainglorious theatrics. But it was unsurpassed heroism to Turner and a crowd of black supporters, who three weeks later publicly lauded Mitchell for his resistance. To soothe his angst, they presented him with a $1,300 "Relax the Back" leather chair - black, of course. Upon receiving the gift, Mitchell promised to continue fighting for black Austin, especially black males, no matter where he sits.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Mitchell's propensity to turn anything into an issue of color has not hurt the chances of his Eastside proposals, except maybe with Shea, an East Austin resident, and with Nofziger, who is becoming more vocal in his opposition after recently receiving Mitchell's trademark "Screw you!" for criticizing the entertainment center. Part of the reason for Mitchell's success to date may be that, as Portia Watson, former president of the Chestnut Hill Neighborhood Association in central East Austin explains, the current council is one of the most sympathetic to Eastside issues, and Mitchell's ideas are the only ones out there. Another factor, reasons Shea: Nobody wants to be tagged a racist. But even she, like the rest of the council, respects Mitchell's verve and nonconformity. "We agree on many fundamental issues, but we have different ways of coming to a solution. He's got Malcolm X's philosophy but we both question the status quo."
True, Mitchell maintains a sharp eye for African-American firms getting undercut by the city's contract selection process. Before the council adopted the budget two weeks ago, he pointed out that black artists traditionally receive a smidgen of the city's annual arts endowment. Indeed, this year they were slated for less than 3% of a $1.9 million endowment. "In all the years past it has probably gone by without anybody saying anything about it," he noted during one of his calmer moments. The rest of the council, save for Max Nofziger, who had just left the podium, earmarked an extra $20,000 for the Black Arts Alliance.
In fact, Mitchell's eagerness to help minority companies landed him in a potential conflict of interest in December; he joined his colleagues in approving a Bergstrom construction contract with a company that lists his firm as a subcontractor. According to the contract, Mitchell's firm will receive only about 6% of the approved contract, or $5,000. At the time, the issue was whether he was in violation of the city's ethics code, which flat-out states that no councilmember may receive financial "benefit from any contract with the city." Since then, City Manager Jesus Garza has decreed that all is above-board since Mitchell has a general, not project-specific, insurance contract with the contractor. According to Garza, Mitchell's company should never have been listed as a subcontractor.
Now, it's become clear that the predicament would have never arisen had Mitchell, upon taking office, revoked his company's designation as a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) with the city's Small and Minority Business Resource (SMBR) center. Having subcontractors with DBE status allows a contractor to receive a higher minority participation percentage, and thus greater consideration during the contract selection process.
Moreover, Mitchell's company recently had the opportunity to revoke the designation, but didn't take it, meaning there's nothing to prevent the situation from occurring again today. SMBR officials say that in June they sent Mitchell an application to recertify his company's soon-to-be-expired designation as a DBE; the application was returned later that month and the status re-awarded.
On June 23, I reached Mitchell on his car phone and asked him about the contract. After one of his more caustic verbal assaults, Mitchell replied, "No comment!" and hung up. Later that day, his executive aide called The Austin Chronicle, threatening legal action if I made future attempts to interview Mitchell. The aide declined to specify the legal action under consideration, but did mention that her boss appeared to be frustrated with the financial sacrifices of a $30,000-per-year public position and was not planning to run again.
For some, especially in the traditional bailiwick of the place 6 seat, Mitchell's absence from the dais would spell relief. Remember, Mitchell, who lives in Oak Hill, a Southwest Austin neighborhood, lost the Eastside precincts during his surprising run-off victory over long-time East Austin activist Ron Davis. With the support of the development community and shining rhetoric like, "I... appreciate and value the opinions of other people, even when I disagree," Mitchell instead swept the city's more affluent outer ring. (And he's remained true-blue to his backers, nearly always favoring developers over neighborhoods in zoning cases.) Some East Austinites, however, say Mitchell's brand of exclusionary and abusive politics have left the community he promises to help more divided than ever.
Since Mitchell took office, "the divisions among black groups have become even more defined," asserts Watson, a life-long East Austin resident. "You have those that have hitched their wagon to Eric Mitchell's situation on one side, and the common people on the other side. The average individual can't relate because we're on the outside of this. It's almost like he has a hidden agenda. Whenever the [housing department] talks about his proposals, our neighborhood association is notified on the day of the meeting, or the day after."
While Mitchell has the support of the African-American FM-radio station, KAZI, and two black Eastside papers, Nokoa and The Villager, his public hearings on Eastside proposals have never drawn more than 75 supporters. A few are Hispanics, nearly all African-Americans. Some of those supporters call Watson's accusations "lies," but other central East Austin groups have had similar experiences with Mitchell's tactics. Latesia Cantu-McGarrahan, president of the Guadalupe Association of Independent Neighborhoods (GAIN), the political arm of the Guadalupe neighborhood in central East Austin, says Mitchell has even less respect for the residents of the core white and Hispanic neighborhoods there than he does for the black neighborhood groups.
For the most part, the groups' dissatisfaction is related to the Austin Redevelopment Authority, or ARA, Mitchell's $75 million plan to use the city's powers of eminent domain to, as he declaims, "wipe... out" the blighted structures on East 11th and 12th Streets, and replace them with city-owned complexes. The project, which slumbered under Urdy in a slightly different form, is the linchpin to Mitchell's redevelopment dreams.
To jump-start the ARA, the city applied for an $8.5 million federal housing loan that staff say will likely be approved by the end of this month. Again, Mitchell's thorough understanding of redevelopment intricacies, refined during his five-year stint as a board member for the Travis County Housing Authority, has accelerated the project. Mitchell didn't want to waste time incorporating a new ARA board, to be comprised of community representatives charged with acquiring land along the two streets. Instead, Mitchell recently asked staff to "dust off" an already incorporated, but inoperational entity. The move saved at least two months.
Mitchell also used his sway with city housing officials to squeeze another $900,000 from the 1996 Neighborhood, Housing, and Conservation budget, the first large allotment of funding for the plan. About $750,000 of that was transferred from the Neighborhood and Commercial Management Program (NCMP), a successful division that matches private loans for small, underprivileged businesses.
Throughout his first year in office, Mitchell incessantly threatened to eliminate the NCMP. He initially complained that Hispanic entrepreneurs received a drastically larger portion of NCMP loans than black business owners. When staff produced numbers debunking that myth, Mitchell switched gears, and began an assault on the program's lack of concentration in the poorest areas, namely central East Austin. And perhaps as a result of the charges, there's been a fundamental change in housing department philosophy.
"In the past, it's been thought that maybe we could use NCMP [to redevelop central East Austin]," explains Bill Cook, head of the housing department. "Now, I see we need something more closely aligned with the traditional urban renewal approach."
The provocation for change? Says one council aide, on condition of anonymity: Cook, as well Cook's boss, Assistant City Manager Oscar Rodriguez, are "scared to death" of Mitchell. And another councilmember says that Mitchell's meddling in housing department affairs has made Cook extremely "cautious."
Cook responds, "Maybe it's just that we agree with Mitchell."
Regardless, some of the neighborhood groups bordering the ARA, like GAIN to the south and Chestnut Hill to the north, fear that their disagreement with the plan, based on the possibility of gentrification and the plan's eminent domain powers, will result in their exclusion from the ARA board.
"All ARA will do is move the lower-income farther east," says Mark Rogers, a white GAIN member. "If that's revitalization, then all they're saying is poor people shouldn't live near downtown."
When Mitchell unveiled the ARA last year, he promised to displace no one. Such a tack is less common nowadays. On a recent Eric Blumberg radio show on KVET, he responded to the white and Hispanic concerns of upheaval. "When I hear people talking about gentrification, and I'm looking at a room full of Anglos and Hispanics that live in a historically black area... What does that mean?"
Father Bill Elliot of Our Lady of Guadalupe at the corner of Lydia and East Ninth Streets says that kind of attitude only reveals Mitchell's lack of understanding for the Eastside, which has been the dumping ground for both poor Hispanics and blacks for some time. Father Elliot blames Mitchell's attitude on the councilmember's exclusionary politics. "If he was more open, then maybe we could find a solution for the whole community, not just part of the community. The ARA is 50% Hispanic. It's a multi-ethnic community and any solution has to include everyone."
That doesn't seem likely, as far as Mitchell is concerned. One councilmember said, on condition of anonymity, that because of GAIN's opposition, "[Mitchell] sees Guadalupe as the enemy. He assumes that anyone connected with GAIN will try to stop the ARA."
GAIN members believe they were the target of a January 25 memo from Mitchell to Assistant City Manager Oscar Rodriguez regarding the ARA. In the memo, Mitchell warns city staff "not to spend a lot of time talking to individuals or groups that have a history of being negative or opposing everything that is brought forward without ever offering positive concrete solutions to issues."
The letter continues, "If this happens, I will view these actions as a deliberate attempt to undermine these initiatives hoping they will fail to receive the necessary support from council and the community at large."
When the neighborhood group heard scuttlebutt that Mitchell, at an August meeting of the council housing subcommittee, would attempt to create an ARA board without a GAIN representative, members of the association trekked down to city hall to protest the oversight.
The issue never came up. In a surprising turn of events, a different item
involving another East Austin neighborhood - Swede Hill - occupied the entire
meeting. The Swede Hill Neighborhood Association, whose boundaries are I-35,
Navasota, East 12th, and Martin Luther King Blvd.,
protested a housing deal being pushed by Mitchell on behalf of Eastside developer and former congressional candidate
Jo Baylor. The deal would allow Baylor to swap six of
her own lots on Webberville Road for five city-owned lots, now used as greenspace by the mostly white neighborhood. Baylor says she wants to build "affordable" townhomes, although they are expected to cost about $80,000 apiece - $10,000 more than the highest-priced house in the area. Though the deal had been percolating for six months, no one informed the association until a week before the meeting. Worse, the agenda item, posted by Mitch-ell, called for the subcommittee to vote on the item that day.
Naturally, the neighborhood residents were angry. During a terse exchange between the association and Mitchell, East Austin's lead councilmember admitted that he "didn't even know" the association "existed." Pouring the proverbial salt, Mitchell told an association member, "I'm going to do this [development]! I'm not going to let you, or anybody else stand in my way!" To silence another resident, Mitchell unleashed a memorable "Screw you!" After that outburst, the other members of the housing subcommittee - Gus Garcia, Jackie Goodman, and Brigid Shea - recommended shelving the proposal until October to allow Baylor and city staff to find alternative lots.
Over the past week, however, Mitchell successfully by-passed the normal review process for the "affordable" housing proposal. Usually, such a project would have to pass through the council housing subcommittee and the planning department, allowing for neighborhood involvement. Yet the proposal is on the council's agenda for this Thursday. So far, Mitchell has refused to meet with Swede Hill representatives about their concerns.
As justification for the housing proposal, Mitchell and Baylor have said they have the support of the main neighborhood association in East Austin, the Anderson Community Development Corporation (ACDC). The ACDC's boundaries represent much of central East Austin, encompassing numerous neighborhoods, including those mentioned above. The overlap is possible because boundaries of any size can be determined by any one person. While it's difficult to know how many people make up the ACDC (Ray Dell Galloway, ACDC president, declined to say), GAIN members say the corporation has only four members.
But perhaps the greatest affront to the central Eastside neighborhood associations has been Mitchell's lack of grass-roots involvement in their community. They say Mitchell is only concerned with development, and has done nothing to address underlying issues like joblessness and illiteracy. "Eric Mitchell has an understanding of East Austin that's not in tune with what we feel," says GAIN member Mark Rogers. "He was elected with the money and support of developers in Northwest and Southwest Austin. He understands their programs very well, but not ours."
While Mitchell often credits the entertainment center as a job provider, park department officials, who will likely manage the center, estimate it will provide only 20 full-time jobs. Meanwhile, in efforts to find funding for the ARA, Mitchell has attempted to remove money for proposals that would provide educational or occupational opportunities. For example, when the council approved the partial tax abatement ordinance in the spring, Mitchell tried to funnel some of the taxes that would be collected into an ARA account. The rest of the council (except for Nofziger, who voted against the abatement policy) wanted to use the taxes for a job training program. Because his attempt at ARA funding failed, Mitchell abstained from the vote. And when the mayor attempted to include a computer education lab at the entertainment center, Mitchell refused to accept the offer, resisting what he called an attempt to once again stall the process.
"Eric wants to make the facade look good, but underneath, the whole economic and social deterioration is not being addressed," says Watson. "All that development's going to be a wasted effort. When you have a commercial center located smack dab in the highest crime area in the city, it won't stay in business long at all." (Although it doesn't specifically address Watson's issues, since the funds are not currently designated for East Austin, Mitchell this week is attempting to boost the police, fire, and EMS budgets by $3.9 million. The money will come from reserve funds.)
In the future, there's little doubt that Mitchell's good fortune will continue. Though his most difficult task, the implementation of the ARA, is yet to come, he's already proven his knack for success without the historical stratagem of media cooperation. The success has come, too, despite assaults on everyone from the general public to city staff to his own colleagues. And since it's unlikely that the rest of the council will actually come up with their own ideas for East Austin's revitalization, there seem to be no obstacles to Mitchell's redevelopment dreams. The irony, of course, is that unless Mitchell's plans stray from a straight redevelopment format to include more complex issues like joblessness and poverty, the same Eastside gentrification that he blames on Hispanics and whites will only continue. Property values will inevitably rise; even his small group of fervent supporters may not get a cut of the pie as more affluent residents take advantage of the Eastside's attractive proximity to downtown.
And for all the unflinching duplicity, divisiveness, and ill-mannered behavior he's used to win those proposals, Mitchell has still won some hint of appreciation even in enemy camps. To sum up: He's going about it the wrong way, but something is better than nothing. Like everyone else who has lived through the decades of neglect, even Watson finds a silver lining in Mitchell's rule. "Urdy never did anything for East Austin at all, but Mitchell has, if nothing else, improved awareness about what's going on here. Before him, nobody cared." n