Council Watch

Housing Squabbles

The council's holiday season officially began last week, the first of six off-weeks in the last quarter of 1995. Still, members of the housing subcommittee met on Tuesday to try to guide the city safely into the next seven days.

For Jackie Goodman, chair of the subcommittee, that means pouncing on a recently discovered, $2.5 mil-lion surplus in the budget of the Neighborhood Housing and Conser-vation office (NHC). Often considered the council's most authentic bleeding heart, Goodman hopes to send out goodwill worth $375,000 to two social service agencies.

At the meeting, she sponsored an item requesting that $300,000 of the surplus go for the Infant Parent Program, an arm of the Austin/Travis County Mental Health/Mental Retardation Center that provides early education and therapy to families of children with developmental delays. If approved by the full council, Goodman's gesture will cover part of an $800,000 undertaking to nearly double the size of the program's facility, with the rest of the money coming from private sources.

She'd like the other $75,000 for Connections: A Resource Center for Child Care Professionals and Parents. The three-year-old agency also hopes to expand into nearby office space, and to increase staffing and office equipment.

Despite a request from absentee committee member Eric Mitchell that the items be postponed, Goodman, Gus Garcia, and Brigid Shea followed staff's recommendation to send the proposals to the Community Development Commission, a 16-member board of community reps charged with offering input into the neighborhood department's proposals. The idea that the community's opinion on a neighborhood project actually matters is somewhat of a rarity - the CDC has had reason to meet only once this year.

Speaking of Mitchell's absenteeism, city hall rumors have been swirling over the past couple of months that there's a fifth member on the subcommittee. Indeed, a call to the city clerk's office confirmed that Bruce Todd is that member, though the lame duck mayor has not been spotted at one meeting this entire year.

Anyway, it's no wonder Mitchell requested shelving the items. He has his own plans for the windfall, which comes as a result of cancelled projects and unanticipated savings in the housing department's budget for Community Development Block Grants. Mitchell wants about $100,000 to help the Austin Midnight Basketball League expand services, says NHC director Bill Cook. On Monday, October 23, the CDC reviewed both Mitchell and Goodman's proposals, and is recommending council approval.

Another proposal Mitchell introduced to the city council is also in need of funds. Former state Representative Wilhelmina Delco and other black community leaders are requesting $1.25 million for an "intergenerational" rehabilitation getaway at the Travis State School in far East Austin. The school, scheduled for closure at the end of 1997, would be reopened as a "village" for single, pregnant mothers, "at-risk" youth, and senior citizens, under the name "Vision Village." Delco and company need the funds to purchase the land and help refurbish numerous facilities there. By dint of unanimous council direction three weeks ago, the city manager is currently in search of available funding options. Housing staff have recommended that the group apply for part of the windfall.

Mitchell, who refuses to speak with reporters from this newspaper, and says he gets a "rash" when he tries to pick it up, was unavailable for comment on his proposals.

Other business at Tuesday's housing subcommittee meeting dealt with Mitchell's East Austin redevelopment plan. Speculation abounds that he may also want the NHC surplus money to supplement the recently approved $9 million federal housing loan that may incarnate his dream to rebuild East 11th and 12th streets. Staff hope the loan will be sufficient to build a 40,000 square foot office building as well as acquiring 56 parcels in the area. Coupled with a two-story, 8,000-square-foot office building that the city is currently constructing, staff think the investments will "prime the pump" for private redevelopment in the rest of the area, permitting rentals and land sales that will help repay the loan.

Here's how the process is designed to work: according to housing staff, who briefed the housing subcommittee members about the plan at last week's meeting, the NHC will disburse the loan to the Urban Renewal Agency (URA). The URA, a committee of four mayoral appointees, will acquire the parcels through purchase or through eminent domain. Eminent domain, whereby a government entity - in this case the URA - can force property owners to give over their land, albeit for a fair market price, has many East Austin residents and business owners worried about fairness and community support for this project. Residents who do not wish to move will find themselves forced out. According to comments made by Mitchell to the daily, re-sistance by residents and business owners will not be brooked.

Once the land is acquired, the URA will sell it to either a private developer or a non-profit corporation, which may be public or private. It will only sell the land if URA design specifications are met, allowing the body to retain control of the project's progress, aesthetics, and other factors.

An enthusiastic Mitchell has already formed his own private non-profit, a "community-based" group of nine members, under the name "Austin Redevelopment Authority" (ARA). "Community-based" is the key phrase here; it turns out that many of the proposed members don't live anywhere near the area to be redeveloped. The council has yet to approve Mitchell's proposal, which is already gaining a fiery resistance from Brigid Shea.

At last week's meeting, Shea voiced her preference for staff's original recommendation: a public non-profit, which would allow more community involvement in the plan's implemenation than would a private non-profit. Their recommendation included representatives from surrounding neighborhoods, unlike Mitchell's proposal which calls mainly for business representatives and political leaders from outside the community.

Staff suggests including representatives from the adjoining Guadalupe neighborhood, among others. Guadalupe neighborhood residents have expressed concerns about the likely use of eminent domain and possible gentrification, as well as exclusion from the process.

It's no wonder. On a memo from housing staff in August recommend-ing that the Guadalupe neighborhood be a member of the public non-profit, Shea says Mitchell's office had scratched off the Guadalupe listing and written a big "No!" next to it.

Since August, housing staff seem to have broadened their horizons. Though Cook says the housing department still holds true to its original recommendation, it was not included in backup material for last week's briefing. "[In August] everybody was focusing on who the developer would be," says Cook. Now, Cook realizes that "it's not important who is the developer. The point is that the [community] input comes in the creation of the plan itself," not in the implementation stages.

After the meeting, Shea approached staff and promised to "hold [NHC staff] personally responsible if this thing blows up" in the face of the neighborhoods. She added later, with reference to the planning process and the use of eminent domain, that "staff is engaging in activities that will cause a jihad in East Austin. They're scaring the crap out of the neighborhoods."

Members of the East Austin Strategy Team (EAST), a group led by former Mitchell campaign opponent Ron Davis, also wants inclusion. EAST will embark on a petition drive to demand that all Central East Austin redevelopment proposals include the "formal participation and approval" of neighborhood groups. The drive officially begins at noon on Saturday, at Lott Park on Curve Street between East 11th and 12th Streets.

Also, the redevelopment plan will be discussed at a town hall meeting called by Mitchell on October 24 at the Metropolitan AME church, 1105 East 10th St.


This week in council: Shea is giving her joint-use idea its greatest exercise yet, requesting that city staff combine resources with the State Comptroller's Office and the LBJ School of Public Affairs to audit the finances and management of the Public Works Department. n

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